Conflict update: December 5

Libya

After a surprisingly long operation, it appears that Sirte is fully under the control of the militias that have been battling ISIS there:

The drawn-out capture of Sirte, the last major Islamic State (Isis) stronghold in Libya, has been completed after months of fighting and a stubborn resistance by snipers.

Rida Issa, a spokesman for the Misrata brigades, said they had led forces backed by US airstrikes to take the last Isis-held buildings in the city. He said the brigades “control all of Sirte’s Ghiza Bahriya neighbourhood and are still securing the area”.

Isis fighters clinging on in a few dozen buildings in the district had earlier on Monday surrendered to Libyan forces, and at least three women had left militant-held ground, officials said.

“Still securing the area” probably means there are or may still be some ISIS fighters hanging around, and indeed Reuters is still reporting that the militias are “besieging” the last ISIS pockets. But it seems like a matter of hours at this point rather than a matter of weeks or months.

In Benghazi, where Khalifa Haftar’s forces are engaged in a running battle with al-Qaeda-linked Islamist forces, images have surfaced reportedly showing UAE aircraft dropping bombs on the city. The UAE has been the Haftar/Tobruk side’s most consistent international supporter during the Libyan civil war, and has engaged in airstrikes to help Haftar in the past, so this is not surprising.

War on Terror

Our friends at ISIS debuted their new spokesman today. His name is Abi al-Hassan al-Muhajer and folks, he is a real trip!

He railed against “crusader America and Europe, Communist Russia, and Persian Iran,” as well as “the sacrificial goats,” a reference to the Shiite, Kurdish and other Sunni militiamen battling to oust the jihadists from bastions overrun during Islamic State’s heyday in 2014.

The fight to destroy the extremist group has made uneasy bedfellows of longtime adversaries, including the United States and Iran, and the U.S. and Russia, even while creating new tensions between established allies like the U.S. and Turkey.

“Their slogan is one: ‘Destroy Islam and its people,’” Muhajer intoned before urging the group’s soldiers in Iraq and Syria to repulse attacks on Tall Afar, Iraq, and the Syrian cities of Raqqa and Al Bab.

LOL, what a character! And he really seems to have a soft spot for everybody’s favorite neo-Ottoman Emperor!

Muhajer reserved special ire for Turkey and its leader, President Recep Tayyep Erdogan, whom he called “the beggar before the doors of crusader Europe.”

“Kill Turks wherever you know they are present and seek them by every means, above every earth and below every sky,” he commanded.

Turkish government military, economic and even media entities were specifically to be targeted, he said, as well as “every [Turkish] embassy and consulate … in countries all over the world.”

He seems nice.

Syria

A UN Security Council resolution that would have called for a ceasefire in Aleppo, along with the immediate provision of humanitarian assistance to the people still there, was vetoed today by Russia and China. Russia said that the resolution would have upset the deal that Moscow and Washington have supposedly reached, or are near to reaching, on evacuating all remaining rebel forces from the city, a claim that the US delegation called “a made-up alibi.” John Kerry and Sergey Lavrov are reportedly talking about some kind of deal along those lines, but it seems clear that, at least on the US side, no deal has yet been reached. More to the point, if/when such a deal were reached there’s really no reason to believe the rebels, who publicly at least say they’re staying put, would go along with it. Any actual juice the United States might once have had with the rebels is long gone, lost amid a sea of promises that were never fulfilled and probably should never have been made to begin with. This is likely Russia’s plan, as they’re more than prepared to designate any rebel group that won’t leave the city as a “terrorist organization,” which they feel will justify a move to totally flatten the last rebel-held parts of the city.

In the actual fighting, as opposed to the diplomatic slap-fighting, two Russian nurses and eight civilians were reportedly killed in western Aleppo by rebel artillery today, while in eastern Aleppo…well, I’m reluctant to cite any death tolls for eastern Aleppo since it’s probably impossible to get an accurate count in the current chaos–and, given Bashar al-Assad’s deep respect for a free and accurate press, we may never really get an accurate count. Elsewhere, monitors say that at least 73 people were killed in Russian and Syrian airstrikes on rebel-held Idlib province.

The Iraqi Kurdish Rudaw news service is reporting that the Turkish-Free Syrian Army advance on the ISIS-controlled city of al-Bab has stalled out. It’s not clear why, though it doesn’t seem to be related to ISIS resistance–Turkey has stopped conducting airstrikes against the city, which suggests a conscious choice on their part to slow things down. They could be planning their assault on the city, or they could be responding to Russian concerns about the FSA taking over al-Bab, or they could be worried about those two Turkish soldiers who were kidnapped by ISIS fighters last week.

Iraq

We’re seeing a spate of “THE ADVANCE HAS STALLED” stories now being written about Mosul, a trend that will probably continue beyond the point when the advance comes unstalled. But it is clear that, despite all the pre-offensive talk about how this operation was going to be a slow, methodical grind rather than a lightning-quick victory, Baghdad was expecting a lightning-quick victory. Now that the reality is setting in, it’s forcing Iraqi leaders to scramble around to avoid scenarios that they didn’t think were possible, like the possibility of Shiʿa militias entering Mosul. Over the weekend, the situation became more challenging as ISIS capitalized on cloud cover to evade coalition airstrikes and launch a counterattack on Iraqi forces surrounding the city.

One reason why the advance has stalled is that what was supposed to be a three-pronged assault on the city has become a one-pronged assault, from the east, as forces coming from the north and from the south have basically stopped advancing. Incredibly, the same political leaders in Baghdad who can’t believe the operation is taking this long are the ones who decided to go ahead with the eastern offensive even though the other two offensives weren’t moving. It looks like the southern offensive, at least, may be getting started up again. Toward that end, Iraqi forces began shelling western Mosul today.

Civilians in Mosul are suffering the most over Baghdad’s decision not to plan for an extended operation. The UNHCR began handing out supplies–space heaters, toiletries, etc.–to Mosul refugees today, but the refugees say that they’re suffering from acute shortages of critical necessities like water and heating oil.

Meanwhile, the AP is reporting that Iraqi Kurds have begun solidifying the makeshift sand berm “border” that they erected on the front lines between Kurdish and ISIS controlled territories back in 2014. With ISIS now forced back to Mosul, that border looks less like the front line between two opposing armies and more like the Kurdistan Regional Government staking out its national boundaries in advance of a renewed push for independence, or at least autonomy.

Lebanon

Overnight, “gunmen” attacked a Lebanese military installation just east of the northern city of Tripoli, killing one Lebanese soldier. It’s not clear who they were but there’s a fairly decent chance the attack was somehow related to events in Syria.

Yemen

Earlier today al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula destroyed the only pipeline running from Yemen’s gas fields in Marib and its Balhaf export terminal. Just in case you thought things couldn’t get any worse. Yemen has been impoverished enough during its civil war, but if its energy exports are cut off then the country is in for some even greater long-term pain and suffering.

The Egyptian government, meanwhile, is in talks with the Yemeni rebels to free 49 Egyptian fishermen who were reportedly detained by the rebels and accused of spying for the Saudi-led coalition trying to put an end to the rebellion. And speaking of the Saudis, their aircraft bombed a Pakistani boat off the Yemeni coast yesterday, killing at least six of the 12 sailors on board. That’ll show them.

Afghanistan

Every once in a while, probably out of frustration, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fires off some angry comment about Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. Hey, he’s not lying. Anyway, yesterday his egg timer must have gone off again:

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said on Sunday that the Taliban insurgency would not survive a month if it lost its sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan, urging its neighbor to take on militant groups on its soil instead of giving Kabul financial aid.

Ghani’s remarks, made at an international conference in the northern Indian city of Amritsar not far from the border with Pakistan, suggested tensions were rising with Pakistan after Ghani attempted to improve relations with Islamabad when he took office in 2014.

Pakistan said while violence had increased in Afghanistan, blaming another country for it didn’t help.

This is true, “blaming another country” would be incredibly counter-productive. Bhutan, for example, has no discernible connection to the Taliban. Kiribati–hey, they’re just trying to stay above sea level, they have nothing to offer an Afghan insurgency. On the other hand, blaming the country that shelters the Taliban and whose intelligence services have long provided logistical support to the Taliban seems fair to me. Admittedly, Ghani’s criticism would probably carry more weight if the Taliban leadership hadn’t, probably, recently crossed back into Afghanistan, but still.

The South China Morning Post is reporting that the Taliban may offer Kabul a ceasefire so that both sides can focus on curtailing ISIS. I don’t know how credible this report is, but while it took ISIS-Khorasan a while to get a real foothold in the region, its activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan seems like it’s been increasing lately. Additionally, the Taliban has been so successful on the battlefield lately that it’s in a position where it could offer a very limited ceasefire to the Afghan government without risking either its overall position or serious internal strife. So if there were ever a time when the Taliban might contemplate something like this, it would be now.

Kashmir

Worried that the escalating conflict between India and Pakistan over Kashmir might, you know, wind up in a regional nuclear exchange? Well don’t worry; America’s best man is on the case:

US president-elect Donald Trump can use his “extraordinary deal-making skills” to reduce tensions around the world and resolve problems such as the Kashmir issue, vice president-elect Mike Pence has said.

In remarks that will not go down well with the leadership in New Delhi, Pence also said the new US administration intends to be “fully engaged” in South Asia and with India and Pakistan on issues such as Kashmir to promote peace and security.

Pence made the remarks when he was asked on NBC’s “Meet the Press” programme whether Trump’s remarks during a recent phone conversation with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif amounted to an offer to “be a mediator in deciding Kashmir”.

“I think in president-elect Donald Trump you’ve got someone who, who is prepared to advance America’s interests here at home, to rebuild this economy, to fight for American jobs,” he said.

“But I think you’re also going to see an energetic leadership in the world, prepared to engage and to look for ways that he can bring those extraordinary deal-making skills to bear on lessening tensions and solving problems in the world.”

Hot damn, I feel better already. If you’re skeptical, know that Trump’s clothing line features a wool-cashmere blend two-button men’s sport coat, so I think it’s clear he’s got some important expertise in this area.

Myanmar

Rohingya who have managed to get across the border into Bangladesh are starting to describe the horrors they fled:

The Myanmar soldiers came in the morning, the young mother says. They set fire to the concrete-and-thatch homes, forcing the villagers to cluster together. When some of her neighbors tried to escape into the fields, they were shot. After that, she says, most people stopped running away.

“They drove us out of our houses, men and women in separate lines, ordering us to keep our hands folded on the back of our heads,” says 20-year-old Mohsena Begum, her voice choking as she described what happened to the little village of Caira Fara, which had long been home to hundreds of members of Myanmar’s minority Rohingya community. She said that when about 50 people had been gathered together, the soldiers, along with a group of local men, pulled four village leaders from the crowd and slit their throats.

Colombia

With a new peace deal with FARC having passed parliament, the focus in Colombia turns toward reaching a deal with the country’s other major rebel group, the ELN. On that front, the ELN say they’re prepared to open talks with the Colombian government as soon as a prisoner exchange can be worked out, whereby the ELN will release a politician they’ve been holding in exchange for the release of two rebels being held by the government. Bogotá has insisted that the politician, Odin Sanchez, must be freed before talks can begin, so the new wrinkle is the ELN demand for a swap.

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One thought on “Conflict update: December 5

  1. Pingback: Conflict update, December 6 | and that's the way it was

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