By all current outward appearances the Syrian army is well on its way to capturing eastern Aleppo. It reportedly controls at least two neighborhoods at this point and has entered several others. Syrian forces appear to be trying to drive through the center of the city to split the rebel-held areas in two. On what I guess you could say is the plus side, as many as 10,000 civilians have escaped the fighting as the rebels have been forced to pull back–Damascus says 1500 have fled the city, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claims the number is 4000, with another 6000 having fled to the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood (see map above), a part of the city controlled by Kurdish fighters. On the decidedly minus side, there are still tens of thousands of civilians who haven’t fled the fighting, who may be unable to flee the fighting, and who may very well be killed in the fighting.
ISIS has made a public show of banning all intoxicants in the areas it controls, in line with its strict adherence to what it claims is True Islam. This even extends to lowly nicotine. It’s been reported that ISIS has beheaded smokers, for example, and the group has released images of their fighters burning piles of cigarettes. But like many other things about ISIS, this posture has mostly been a bullshit cover for its money-making ventures. Reports from people who have fled Mosul say that, far from cracking down on the cigarette smuggling operations that inevitably cropped up when ISIS “banned” tobacco products, the group has made money by extorting the smugglers. This isn’t all that different from ISIS’s policy toward artifacts; it claims to destroy them out of a religious proscription of idol worship, but in reality it only destroys what it can’t smuggle on to the antiquities black market. Again, profit-taking hidden under a layer of ultra-religious bullshit.
As the Mosul operation continues slowly but surely (the Iraqis may switch gears and tell civilians inside the city to get out if they can, which would allow the Iraqis to stop pulling their punches against ISIS), a political fight has cropped up in Baghdad over the government’s decision to bestow legal status on the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU). Sunni Arab legislators boycotted the vote and say they plan to challenge the law in court, concerned in particular that the law has the mostly Shiʿa PMU reporting directly to the Iraqi Prime Minister, who must by law (and likely would by popular will anyway) be Shiʿa. In the hands of a PM who was inclined to be sectarian about things, the fact that he now would have tens of thousands of mostly Shiʿa fighters under his direct authority could be problematic. On the other hand, if the alternative was to have the PMU revert back to their pre-ISIS status as paramilitary militias responsible to no one but their own commanders, then I have to say this seems like the better option. Meanwhile, two new mass graves have been found, containing what is believed to be the bodies of Yazidis massacred by ISIS.
The woman who was arrested by Libyan authorities and thought to be the wife of Mokhtar Belmokhtar may in fact be the wife of Mokhtar b. Mokhtar, who is a Tunisian terror suspect but is definitely not the al-Qaeda bigwig.
New York Times reporter Ben Hubbard took a trip to Houthi-occupied Sanaa and has written it up for the paper:
“There was too much corruption and looting before,” said Masoud Saad, 19, who had dropped out of middle school to become a fighter. “We wanted to present the true religion of God in a correct way.”
Once a provincial militant movement in the mountains of northern Yemen, the Houthis surged to prominence after they seized control of the country’s northwest in 2014. Since then, they have pushed the national government into exile and set off a new Middle Eastern war in which they are in the cross hairs of an intensive bombardment campaign by Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Arab countries.
Now they are struggling to govern in the middle of a war that has ground to a destructive stalemate.
Very interesting first-hand reporting, something that’s been hard to come by from the Houthi-controlled parts of the country.
A Taliban spokesman is claiming that the group’s leadership council moved back into Afghanistan from Pakistan “months ago.” Practically it’s not clear how much this would actually affect the fighting in Afghanistan, but symbolically it matters, both in potential negotiations with Kabul and to potential recruits who might be think about falling in with ISIS-Khorasan instead, that the Taliban now feel secure enough in Afghanistan that their leaders are once again operating there.
Just in time for Donald Trump to make use of it, the Obama administration has made a policy change that lumps Somali al-Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab (which was probably responsible for a car bombing in Mogadishu yesterday that killed at least 11 people) in with all the other terror groups that are now covered under the post-9/11 Authorization to Use Military Force. The change will allow for airstrikes against al-Shabaab targets that aren’t necessarily involved in immediate fighting or that don’t necessarily pose any imminent threat to American interests. This is, of course, a total bastardization of the AUMF, but you won’t find anybody willing to say so and risk being labeled a defender of a group like al-Shabaab. I suppose it’s possible that the Trump administration and Republican Congress could finally write a new AUMF that accurately reflects the current state of the War on Terror, but when you can just manipulate existing law to make it do whatever you want, why go to the trouble of creating a new law?
The National Interest’s Sebastien Roblin reports on the ongoing Russia-fueled arms race between Armenia and Azerbaijan:
A look at the demographics of the two countries today reveals the curious nature of the conflict. Armenia has a population around three million—while Azerbaijan’s approaches ten million. Furthermore, Azerbaijan has nearly twice the GDP per capita, thanks to its abundant oil wealth. Azerbaijan’s defense budget exceeds Armenia’s total national budget. By any normal analysis, the Armenians should be heavily outgunned. Yet the Armenian side has historically been more militarily successful.
One factor has clearly been support from Russia, the undisputed regional hegemon of that corner of Central Asia. Russia maintains a close alliance with Armenia today. That support is manifest in the five thousand Russian troops based in the Armenian city of Gyumri, as well as extensive arms sales. This February, Russia announced a loan of $200 million to Armenia to purchase BM-30 Smerch multiple-rocket launchers and various man-portable antitank and antiaircraft missiles. A year earlier, Russia transferred six Mi-24P attack helicopters to Armenia.
In November 14, Moscow even announced it would form a joint military force with Armenia for the mutual protection of their borders. The alliance would also offer Armenia access to Russian arms at domestic prices. However, the alliance would not pertain to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict.
Yet Azerbaijan, too, receives 85 percent of its arms from Russia, according to a SIPRI report—to the tune of $4 billion in Russian arms between 2010 and 2014. The heavy weapons purchased by the petrostate include one hundred T-90 tanks, a battalion of eighteen relatively modern 2S19 Msta self-propelled howitzers, two batteries of long-range S-300PMU surface-to-air missiles and over one hundred helicopters, including eighteen Mi-35 gunships.
A full-scale renewal of the 1988-1994 Nagorno-Karabakh War has seemed likely since April, when Azerbaijani forces made an incursion into the breakaway Armenian majority province and were repelled. The fact that both sides are Russian clients may actually make it easier to prevent another war, depending on what Moscow wants to see (the Russians did work to calm things down after the fighting in April). If Russia were to cut off either party (likely Azerbaijan) then that party would turn elsewhere for its weapons (to Turkey, for example) and Moscow would lose much of its ability to play mediator. Still, the situation could escalate even out of Russia’s hands, and given some disturbing recent suggestions that Armenia has been trying to develop a nuclear weapons capability, there’s plenty of reason to be concerned.
The Philippine military says it killed 11 members of the Maute Group, a small southern insurgent movement that has pledged itself to ISIS, on Sunday in a town in Lanao del Sur province. The fighters had apparently occupied the town on Saturday. The Maute Group is one of several factions that splintered away from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front during the 2012-2014 period when the MILF (yes, make your jokes now) began negotiating with the Philippine government, leading to a peace deal in 2014. They’re led by Abdullah Maute, hence the name, and while they claimed to have ties to the Indonesian terror group Jemaah Islamiyah (which itself has had some ties to al-Qaeda) in 2013 when they first made themselves known, more recent reports suggest that they’ve aligned themselves with Abu Sayyaf and thus, at least nominally, with ISIS.
The South Sudanese government has agreed to allow a 4000 person UN protection force, drawn from East African nations, to be deployed in Juba alongside the 16,000 person UN peacekeeping force that’s already there and hasn’t been able to keep very much peace. The new forces will have a “stronger mandate” than the peacekeepers, whatever that means.
The king of the semi-autonomous, and occasionally separatist, western Ugandan region of Rwenzururu, Charles Mumbere, has been arrested by Ugandan authorities in response to clashes between his militia and police in the town of Kasese on Saturday that resulted in 55 deaths. Ugandan authorities say that Mumbere’s royal guard has been training alongside separatists and accuse him of planning to secede, though he denies that. Kenya’s The Star newspaper is reporting on “unverified photos” that may show the aftermath of some kind of heavy violence on the site of Mumbere’s palace, which Ugandan police assaulted today in order to arrest Mumbere. The BBC says a “heavy fire fight followed the operation,” so there’s a pretty strong possibility that there were casualties incurred that haven’t been announced.
Democratic Republic of the Congo
A militia called Mai Mai Mazembe has reportedly killed at least 37 people in an attack on a group of displaced Hutus in the country’s northeast. This is the latest in a series of attacks and counterattacks by Hutu and Nande (as Mai Mai Mazembe is) militias over the past several months, an ethnic conflict that could be exacerbated by political instability in Kinshasa.