Thanksgiving conflict update: November 24

Happy Thanksgiving to those who celebrated it or are celebrating it today. If you’re thankful for the work I do around this place, please don’t hesitate to drop a little something in the tip jar down below, or (even better) to subscribe via the Patreon link on the front page. Every little bit helps, especially this time of year.

Anyway, just because it was a holiday here in the US doesn’t mean nothing happened. Let’s see what’s going on.


If you were feeling a little relieved, as I admit I was, that this year’s Arbaʿeen pilgrimage looked like it would pass without a major terrorist attack against the pilgrims, I’m afraid you jumped the gun:

At least 80 people, many of them Shiite pilgrims on their way home to Iran, were killed on Thursday when an Islamic State suicide bomber detonated a truck filled with explosives at a roadside service station in southern Iraq, local officials said.

The devastating attack came two days after Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi applauded the security forces for protecting the millions of Shiites who have flowed through southern Iraq in recent days for what many consider the world’s largest religious pilgrimage, larger even than the hajj in Saudi Arabia.

The bombing occurred in Hilla, south of Baghdad, and is the worst single terrorist attack in Iraq since the July bombing Baghdad’s Karrada district that killed more than 320 people. It’s yet another reminder that ISIS isn’t going away, even as it loses its last territorial holdings in Iraq.

Speaking of reminders, the Washington Post’s Liz Sly published a lengthy piece yesterday on the impact that ISIS has had on Sunni Arabs in Iraq and Syria. Here’s a taste:

No religious or ethnic group was left unscathed by the Islamic State’s sweep through Iraq and Syria. Shiites, Kurds, Christians and the tiny Yazidi minority have all been victims of horrific atrocities, and they now are fighting and dying in the battles to defeat the militants.

But the vast majority of the territory overrun by the Islamic State was historically populated by Sunni Arabs, adherents of the branch of Islam that the group claims to champion and whose interests the militants profess to represent. The vast majority of the 4.2 million Iraqis who have been displaced from their homes by the Islamic State’s war are Sunnis. And as the offensives get underway to capture Mosul, Iraq’s biggest Sunni city, and Raqqa, the group’s self-proclaimed capital in Syria, more Sunni towns and villages are being demolished, and more Sunni livelihoods are being destroyed.

Most Sunnis played no part in the militants’ rise. All are paying a heavy price for the sake of those who did, accelerating and deepening a reversal in the fortunes of the majority sect of Islam that had ruled the region for most of the past 1,400 years.

“ISIS was a tsunami that swept away the Sunnis,” said Sheik Ghazi Mohammed Hamoud, a Sunni tribal leader in the northwestern Iraqi town of Rabia, which was briefly overrun by the Islamic State in 2014 and is now under Kurdish control. “We lost everything. Our homes, our businesses, our lives.”

Now, there are some powerful stories in this piece, and there is no denying that ISIS exploited legitimate Sunni grievances to rebuild its strength in Iraq and then expand into Syria, and that Sunnis in both countries have suffered horrifically at ISIS’s hands. And I realize that there was no way Sly or the WaPo could’ve known that 80+ Shiʿa pilgrims would be slaughtered by Sunni terrorists the day after this piece went live. But, man, you could make a strong argument (and people have made it) that ISIS’s treatment of Shiʿa and Christians has been genocidal, and I don’t think there’s any question that its treatment of the Yazidis was genocidal. Yes, Sunnis living in areas under ISIS control have suffered, but if we’re going to turn this into the Suffering Olympics, which is probably a bad idea but it seems like the WaPo has decided to go there anyway, then Sunnis are still, it seems to me, coming out ahead compared to ISIS’s other targets.

While most Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis played no part in ISIS’s rise, some certainly did. Some of them believed being governed by ISIS was preferable to being governed by Nouri al-Maliki, or Bashar al-Assad. Some of them still believe that. This doesn’t justify the treatment Sunnis have allegedly gotten in places like Diyala, where Shiʿa Arabs and/or Kurds have–again, allegedly–driven them out of their homes or prevented them from returning to homes recently liberated from ISIS. And it doesn’t obviate the need for Baghdad to start treating its Sunni Arab citizens like full citizens, which Maliki never managed to do (there are some hopeful signs in this regard coming out of the Mosul offensive). But to some degree I think the “marginalized Sunni” in Iraq and Syria can be analogized to the “aggrieved working class white guy” in the US, by which I mean that they have some very understandable grievances that should–must–be addressed by their governments, but that the reaction at least some of them have had to those grievances has been wholly out of bounds.


A US service member working with anti-ISIS forces in eastern Syria was killed today by an improvised explosive device near Ayn Issa. This is the first US military death in Syria.

Buzzfeed has broken down what’s been happening in Aleppo over the past few days “by the numbers,” which is pretty helpful in terms of getting some perspective. It’s not pretty. On the plus side, maybe, Syrian rebels say they’ve agreed to a UN plan to bring aid into the city and allow civilians to evacuate, but there’s been no word from Damascus or Moscow, who are obviously the more important parties here.

Meanwhile, Turkey has promised to “retaliate” after what is believed to have been a Syrian government airstrike killed three of its soldiers in northern Syria early Thursday morning. Turkey’s forces are within shouting distance of northern Aleppo, which puts them uncomfortably close to Syrian positions for Damascus, which has already warned them about operating in that area. But Turkey hasn’t shown any inclination to divert from its anti-ISIS/anti-Kurd focus to make any move on Aleppo. Still, the very presence of Turkish forces inside Syria is an obvious flashpoint-in-waiting. These are the first Turkish soldiers killed by Syrian forces since Turkey opted to invade northern Syria, and while it seems unlikely that Turkey will retaliate in a serious way (Ankara probably doesn’t want to land on Russia’s bad side again), it wouldn’t be totally out of the question either.


Somebody detonated a car bomb in Adana earlier today that killed at least two people and injured more than 30 others. The governor of Adana is believed to have been the target as the bomb was detonated outside his government offices. A suspect in the bombing was later tracked down and killed in a shootout with Turkish authorities. As is always the case when dealing with terrorist attacks in Turkey, the list of suspects starts with the PKK and/or TAK and ends with ISIS. Adana is home to Incirlik air base, which has seen heavy use as a launch point for strikes against ISIS in Syria, so that might be relevant.


A car bomb at a military checkpoint in El-Arish, in the Sinai, killed eight Egyptian soldiers earlier today. ISIS’s Sinai branch is undoubtedly responsible.


Somebody wearing a mask and carrying a shotgun and knife broke into a Christian missionary retirement home in Montferrier-sur-Lez and killed one person Thursday evening. There is at this point no apparent evidence that this was a terrorist attack, but given the target and the fact that it happened in France it’s certainly possible that it was some kind of ISIS-inspired operation.

South Asia

Because you never stop feeling responsible for your former colonies, I guess, British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson (remember when this sounded weird? “President-elect Trump” has surpassed it) is “urging” India and Pakistan to cool off. The chief of Pakistan’s air force is urging India to cool off, but somehow I don’t think his veiled threats are going to get a lot of traction.


Because it’s Thanksgiving, let’s end on a high note:

The Colombian government and the country’s main rebel group signed a new peace deal on Thursday, hoping to salvage the accords and skip the ballot box after voters rejected the agreement in a referendum the month before.

If the ceremony had a sense of familiarity, it was because it had all been done before this year. In late September, the rebels — Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC — and the government pledged a new start at a signing ceremony before world leaders in the port town of Cartagena after a half-century of war.

But on Oct. 2, only days after the signing, Colombians took to the polls for a referendum on the peace deal and knocked it down by a slim margin. In another twist, President Juan Manuel Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize later that week, with the judges urging him to not let the agreement slip out of reach.

Hence, the need for a do-over.

The new agreement is tougher on FARC than the one that was put to the failed referendum in that it expands government control in rural areas and limits ex-rebels’ ability to participate in politics, but it doesn’t do as much as opponents of the original deal say they wanted. Still, it’s likely to be approved in parliament.



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