No, this isn’t about that knife attack I mentioned yesterday–French authorities are saying that attack wasn’t terrorism. However, they’re also reporting that they’ve just arrested five ISIS operatives who were planning an “imminent” terrorist attack under direction from the group’s leadership in the Middle East. At least some of the five appear to have been picked up in Strasbourg, which calls itself the “capital of Christmas” because of its huge annual Christmas market. That could suggest the market was/is a target–and while these arrests are (presumably) a good thing, they don’t mean the plot has been entirely defused–or that the market might not still be under threat. There are rumors that Disneyland Paris and the Champs-Élysées were being targeted, but French authorities aren’t talking for obvious reasons.
Coalition airstrikes have indeed destroyed the last of the five bridges connecting western Mosul to eastern Mosul over the Tigris River. This should make it harder for ISIS to continue defending eastern Mosul as energetically as it has been, but it also complicates things for civilians, who now can’t cross the Tigris to get away from the most active fighting. This is a huge problem, of course, and was expected to be a huge problem when the offensive began with over a million civilians still inside the city. Civilian casualties are rising, particularly due to coalition airstrikes, but at the same time Iraqi and coalition forces have been unable to really unleash their maximum force for fear of killing even more people and of leaving the city in rubble. Iraqi commanders are griping about the government’s decision to tell people in Mosul to stay in their homes, and while they’ve got a complaint (if anybody was really expecting a mass uprising to bolster the offensive then they were making a serious error), I’m not sure what the alternative would have been. If Mosul’s civilians had fled en masse they would likely have been killed in substantial numbers by ISIS as they fled, and now they’d be overwhelming everybody’s capacity to cope with a sudden influx of newly displaced Iraqis. The fact is there was no good choice in terms of what to tell Mosul’s civilians to do.
In better news, the problem of Tal Afar may be resolving itself, as the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) that have surrounded the city are now saying that they won’t enter it. Instead, a PMU commander named Karim Nuri says that his forces will provide logistical assistance to the Iraqi army as it enters the city. The PMUs are not as organized as it might seem and so there’s still some uncertainty about what is actually going to happen, but if the Iraqi army takes the city then presumably a) there will be less risk of an outbreak of sectarian violence, and b) Turkey won’t feel the need to invade Iraq.
With people in eastern Aleppo reportedly days away from starvation, there’s still no word whether Russia and Syria will agree to a UN ceasefire plan to deliver aid into the city and allow people trapped there to leave. But meanwhile, the fighting continues. Airstrikes earlier today destroyed two women’s health clinics, in Aleppo and northern Idlib, and killed at least 12 people according to monitors. The demand for prosthetics has been so great that Turkish clinics are unable to keep up.
Elsewhere, Turkish forces and their FSA proxies are still pushing toward al-Bab, an operation whose stated intent is to eventually make it all the way to Raqqa but whose actual impact has been to divert Kurdish fighters away from the Raqqa offensive. Meanwhile, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu news agency says Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin had a phone chat earlier today, in the wake of the Syrian government airstrike on Thursday that killed three Turkish soldiers. I wonder what they talked about?
The Lebanese army says it captured 11 ISIS fighters, including at least one of fairly high rank, in the northeastern town of Arsal, near the Syrian border. Compared to the previous couple of years, 2016 clearly seen an improvement for Lebanon in terms of ISIS and/or Nusra/JFS spillover from Syria, but ever since the so-called “Battle of Arsal” in August 2014 there are still pockets around Arsal where those groups have a presence.
A cache of WikiLeaks-released documents shows that the United States heavily armed, trained, and financed the Yemeni military in the years leading up to the outbreak of the civil war there. Which, I have to say, doesn’t really lift the veil on any major state secrets so much as it adds detail to something we already knew. Because the Yemeni military has been divided between supporters of current President Hadi and former President Saleh, these documents do reinforce the fact that the US has armed both sides of the war.
The international aid group CARE (Africare is also quite highly rated) is saying that, with fighting having spread to the country’s Equatoria region, another one million people are at high risk of starvation, in addition to the five million already suffering. Farmers have been displaced by the fighting, and farmland is therefore lying unused except maybe for the occasional gun battle.
Two different gun battles in Kashmir claimed the lives of two separatist rebels and three Indian security officers. Fridays in Kashmir are generally tense, as India has been preventing Muslims from gathering for the usual Friday communal prayer service since violence there picked up again over the summer.
I only saw this report after I’d already posted this blog, but apparently a group of fighters with Jamaat-ul-Ahrar, the Pakistani Taliban splinter group that may be part of (or affiliated with) ISIS’s Khorasan Province, have attacked a Pakistani army facility in the northern Mohmand region, one of those troubled Federally Administered Tribal Areas along the country’s border with Afghanistan. Four militants have reportedly been killed as opposed to two Pakistan soldiers, with another 14 soldiers wounded.
Russia is formally protesting a Ukrainian plan to run a missile drill over Crimea next week, arguing that the Ukrainians will be firing missiles into Russian airspace. The problem, as you presumably have already guessed, is that according to Ukraine (and the entire, you know, post-WWII framework of international relations), the airspace over Crimea is Ukrainian airspace. Kiev says its missile test won’t approach eastern Crimea, near the Kerch Strait and actual Russian airspace, so no harm, no foul. Watch for some more fun provocations around this missile test in the next few days.