Conflict update: November 30


The liberation/massacre of eastern Aleppo continues, but the UN is on it:

The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting Wednesday on the dire humanitarian situation in the Syrian city of Aleppo, which a UN official described as a “descent into hell.”

“For the sake of humanity, we call on, we plead with the parties and those with influence to do everything in their power to protect civilians and enable access to the besieged part of eastern Aleppo before it becomes one giant graveyard,” UN humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien told council members during the meeting.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault called for the meeting a day earlier. He told Reuters that Syria’s brutal civil war, which has raged for almost six years, would not be resolved with one of the “biggest massacres on a civilian population since World War Two.”

“This (Security Council) meeting would have to find a way to deal with the humanitarian situation and see how we can get aid in. We have to find a way,” Ayrault said.

Wait, you may be thinking, if it were possible for the UN Security Council to “find a way” to alleviate the humanitarian disaster in Aleppo, surely it would have done so by now, right? And, really, you wouldn’t be wrong to think that. This institution, designed with the intention of solving conflicts peacefully and without massive bloodshed, is entirely dysfunctional, since literally any resolution of substance that it considers is at least even money to earn a veto from one of the five permanent members.

Stephen O’Brien, the UN Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs, has been able to conclude that “the rules of war — sacrosanct notions borne out of generations of costly and painful lessons and set more than 150 year ago in the First Geneva Convention — have been systematically disregarded in Syria.” This is honestly so important, because it gives us a chance to talk about “the rules of war.” I write about “international law” and the “rules” or “laws” of war around here a fair bit, mostly because it’s helpful shorthand to explain that somebody is doing something terrible. But these are not actual, substantive laws, and it’s more than a little cynical for the UN to wring its hands as though they were. Adherence to actual law is not voluntary, but international law, particularly around matters of war, is entirely voluntary. Nobody throws you in jail if you use chemical weapons, as Saddam Hussein demonstrated in the 1980s, or if you drop cluster bombs on civilian population centers, as the Israeli government demonstrates every time it mows the lawn in Gaza or southern Lebanon. Sure, you might face sanctions or even some kind of military response if you do those things, but only if you’re on the outs with the wrong people (i.e., the United States). Otherwise, nobody, least of all the United Nations, is prepared to enforce any of these things it casually labels “laws” and “rules.”


Speaking of unpunished violations of international law, here’s what’s happening in Yemen:

The family of Osama Hassan faced a wrenching choice as his tiny body wasted away. Should they use the little money they had, in a time of war, to take the 2-year-old to a hospital? Or should they buy food to feed their other children?

His family chose food.

Outside their hut, Ahmed Sadek grimly observed his frail grandson, who was lying on a wooden cot and staring blankly at the gray sky. His hair was sparse, his teeth decayed, his arms sticklike. He could no longer walk on his spindly legs.

With every raspy breath, Osama’s ribs protruded through his dry skin.

“There’s nothing we can do for him,” Sadek said. “I know he’s going to die.”

Osama’s family lives in the Yemeni countryside and has probably escaped most of the heavy fighting because of that. Instead they’re being consigned to starve to death because the civil war has wrecked any semblance of normal order throughout the country.

South Sudan

Speaking of the UN Security Council being completely useless, consider the case of South Sudan:

The United States is struggling to secure the minimum number of votes needed for the United Nations Security Council to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan amid U.N. warnings of possible genocide in the world’s newest state, said diplomats.

A resolution needs nine votes in favor and no vetoes to be adopted, but a senior U.N. diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said so far only seven members were in favor, while the remaining eight were planning to abstain or vote no.

While Russia and China are skeptical of whether imposing an arms embargo on South Sudan would achieve much in a country already awash with weapons, diplomats didn’t expect them to block the measure if it was put to a council vote.

“No one is talking about a veto … There is a question about whether (the United States) can get to the nine positive votes or not,” said the senior diplomat, adding that some countries had argued they wanted more time to consider the move.

What possible reason could eight members of the UNSC have for voting to keep arms flowing into South Sudan? Who knows? Japan apparently doesn’t want to make anybody mad because it has forces in South Sudan as part of the UN peacekeeping operation–you know, the one that hasn’t kept the peace. As for the rest? Hey, they can’t all want to sell weapons to the warring South Sudanese factions, can they?

UN plans to deploy a new 4000 person reaction force to Juba are also apparently falling apart, and just in time for the government to embark on a whole new campaign of atrocities:

“We have credible information that the South Sudanese government is currently targeting civilians in Central Equatoria and preparing for large-scale attacks in the coming days or weeks,” Keith Harper, the U.S. representative at the U.N. Human Rights Council, said in Geneva.

The claim was quickly rejected by his South Sudanese counterpart, and South Sudan ambassador Kuol Alor Kuol Arop denied any build-up of forces or plans for an offensive in an interview with the Associated Press.

“We are raising the alarm. We are calling on the government of South Sudan not to move forward with the offensive they have planned,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power told VOA in New York.

In Juba on Wednesday, U.N. human rights experts warned of “unprecedented” levels of violence and ethnic tension across the war-torn country.

“Many expect intensified fighting now that the dry season is setting in,” said Yasmin Sooka of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, following a fact-finding mission.


Iraqi forces say they’ve liberated 19 Mosul neighborhoods from ISIS, though given ISIS’s continued ability to use its tunnel system to get behind Iraqi lines it’s not clear whether those neighborhoods have all been conclusively liberated. On the down side, reports of atrocities against civilians, carried out by ISIS but also by Popular Mobilization Units and Tribal Mobilizations (Sunni militias), are still coming in.


The airports in Gao and Timbuktu were both attacked yesterday–Gao with a truck bomb and Timbuktu with rockets. There were no casualties in either case. Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s (assuming he’s still alive) al-Mourabitoun terror group claimed the Gao attack.


The revised peace deal between the Colombian government and FARC has passed the Colombian Congress. The deal passed both houses unanimously, though opponents boycotted rather than voting “no.” Implementing the deal will be a whole new set of challenges, but even so this is certainly quite a rapid turnaround from the referendum that voted down the original peace deal in October.


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