Conflict update, December 6

Lots of human rights and humanitarian news today and, surprise, none of it good.


Human Rights Watch–which I know has its issues, but still–issued a report on Sunday on the Kurdistan Regional Government’s economic blockade of Sinjar, which is being used as a base by the KRG’s rival, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The main effect of the KRG blockade hasn’t been to harm the PKK, but rather to immiserate Yazidis still trying to recover from nearly being genocided by ISIS back in 2014. Making it more difficult for food and water to get in to the area and for agricultural products to get out (for sale) does nothing to stifle the PKK but hurts civilians considerably.

The UN’s refugee office is trying to prepare for a potential exodus of as many as 700,000 people from Mosul as winter sets in. The biggest hurdle, as you might expect, is funding, with the UNHCR needing about $200 million to provide for that many refugees and only having maybe half of that as things now stand and facing an incoming administration in Washington that may very well be stingier about aid than the current one has been. The necessity to properly care for displaced Mosul residents is political as well as humanitarian, because a badly managed refugee situation will only destabilize the already precarious political situation surrounding the Mosul operation and the future of Iraq beyond Mosul. Meanwhile, let’s not lose sight of the mounting civilian death toll in Mosul, which some estimates have put as high as 600 with as many as half of those stemming from coalition airstrikes.

In terms of actual fighting, the Iraqi army has reportedly gained significant ground in the past day or so, pushing closer to the eastern bank of the Tigris. The target appears to be the southernmost of the five bridges crossing the river, which was cratered on either side by coalition airstrikes some time back but is still being used by ISIS to get men and vehicles (for car bombs) from the western side of the city to the eastern side. Apparently ISIS filled up the craters with sand. It’s not immediately clear why the Iraqis were able to make so sudden and large an advance after being bogged down for so long, but Iraqi commanders suggested that their tactics have changed (focusing on bringing their much larger number of soldiers into play) and that the quality of the defenders has dropped. It seems premature to draw that kind of conclusion, but it certainly is true that the way ISIS is defending the city, relying so heavily on suicide attacks, is not sustainable over a long fight.


Another day brings another “oh, so close” from those US-Russian talks that are supposed to end the fighting in Aleppo any minute now. The Russians, for their part, are saying, via foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, that “if somebody refuses to leave Aleppo on good terms, he will be eliminated…there is no other way out.” So that’s nice. The Americans are still trying to parse rebel groups with the Russians, deciding which rebels should be bombed and which are virtuous enough to be spared, as though we don’t have over a year’s worth of evidence proving a) that Moscow doesn’t have any interest in differentiating between rebel groups, and b) that it’s unlikely that anybody could really differentiate between rebel groups anymore, at least in Aleppo. In a little bit of trolling, meanwhile, Moscow criticized the West’s “low key” response to the rebel shelling of a western Aleppo hospital yesterday, which would probably be funnier if the punchline didn’t involve all the eastern Aleppo hospitals that the Russians have actually destroyed themselves.

The Syrian government now controls somewhere between 70 and 75 percent of eastern Aleppo after capturing the al-Shaar neighborhood today, and at some point it must be said that rebels who insist on staying and fighting to the last man in a lost cause are also condemning more civilians to death as a consequence.


Amnesty International is criticizing Ankara for implementing a policy of forced displacement among its Kurdish population. The rights organization says the Turks have “evicted tens of thousands of people” in southeastern Turkey and have then taken over and in many cases demolished their homes.

Also, and this has really been a banner day for the cause of human rights in Turkey, Ankara is being forced to deny a claim by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that Turkish snipers have killed 163 Syrian refugees trying to cross into Turkey this year. The Turks say the claim is “fabricated” and that they have no policy blocking Syrian civilian refugees from crossing the border, and also too they’re definitely going to get a safe zone put in place for refugees in northern Syria just as soon as Mr. Putin says it’s OK.

Saudi Arabia-Iran

Just when you thought it was safe to invite King Salman and Ayatollah Khamenei to your New Year’s Eve party, this happened today:

The Saudi Arabian government has sentenced 15 people to death and jailed many more over an alleged spy ring that handed secret documents to arch-enemy Iran.

A court in the capital of Riyadh also gave prison terms ranging from six months to 25 years, and acquitted two, over a three-year case that has involved 30 Saudis, one Iranian and one Afghan.

Critics have long said the high-profile trial is entirely politically motivated and serves as a distraction from the Gulf state’s economic woes.

“Economic woes”? What “economic wo-” oh, right, OK.


The Yemeni government, such as it is, is rejecting a United Nations “roadmap” to ending the Yemeni civil war, arguing that the UN plan sets a “dangerous international precedent” by leaving some parts of Yemen unbombed legitimizing the rebels’ demands. The deal would have Yemeni President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi giving up most of his real powers to a deputy or deputies of some kind (a vice president, prime minister, or both) in exchange for the rebels standing down and leaving the cities they still control. Like a stopped clock, Hadi is right in that this deal would set a dangerous precedent. A better deal would see Hadi’s fake election-winning, war crime-committing ass hauled off to The Hague along with his Saudi enablers (and the rebels leaders too, for good measure). Now that deal would set an excellent precedent.

Speaking of which, actually, a Saudi coalition investigation into charges that it bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital in the city of Abs in August concluded that, oops, the coalition did bomb the hospital, and that a heartfelt apology was in order. An apology. The hospital was clearly marked as such, and was on a list of places that were not to be struck, and 19 people were killed, and bombing hospitals is a war crime, but sure, a nice “sorry about that” should clear everything up.


Egyptian authorities say their forces killed three men earlier today in a raid on a “hideout” used by a group called Hasm, which per those Egyptian authorities is “an armed wing of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Hasm claimed credit for an assassination attempt against the former Grand Mufti of Egypt in August and for another assassination attempt against an Egyptian prosecutor in Cairo in September.


Libyan forces in Sirte today announced that they have completed the final stage of the end of the conclusion of the last stand of the close of the operation to clear the city of ISIS. Congratula-

Ahmed Hadiya, the head of the media center for the anti-IS operation, told The Associated Press: “This is the last major battle, but it is not the end of military operations, nor the declaration of liberation.”

OH FOR FUCK’S SAKE. Anyway, regardless of what the situation is in Sirte, it’s definitely not the end for ISIS in Libya. There are plenty of places in the southern Libyan deserts where ISIS fighters can hide away. What this does mean is and end to ISIS’s concentrated presence in Libya and to its plans to turn Libya into its home away from home after things really go south in Mosul and Raqqa.


An overnight attack on a prison in the town of Niono freed 93 prisoners, 90 of whom are reportedly still at large. Initial suspicion for the attack has fallen on the Macina Liberation Front, though at this point that’s still speculation. It’s unclear if any Islamist militants were among the prisoners who were freed.


Remember that whole “Kony 2012” movement to try to bring attention to Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army, one of the worst practitioners of child soldiering in the world? Well, Kony is still out there somewhere, probably central Africa, but an LRA commander, Dominic Ongwen, is now on trial before the International Criminal Court and is claiming that he was a victim of the LRA, not a perpetrator of its crimes. This is a fascinating and tragic case, in part because Ongwen is a former child soldier who was abducted by the LRA in 1988, when he was either ten or 14 years old, so he clearly was a victim in the beginning. But he also stayed with the LRA until 2014, when he fled after a falling out with Kony and was subsequently picked up by Séléka fighters in the Central African Republic, and he was one of Kony’s top lieutenants. At what point do you stop being the indoctrinated child soldier and start being an adult who must be answerable for his crimes? Is there such a point? That’s what Ongwen’s trial will have to answer.


Whatever Saudi Arabia’s economic woes might be, they’re apparently not enough to cut off the cash pipeline from its wealthiest citizens to the Taliban:

With their nation’s future at stake, Afghan leaders have renewed a plea to one power that may hold the key to whether their country can cling to democracy or succumbs to the Taliban. But that power is not the United States.

It is Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia is critical because of its unique position in the Afghan conflict: It is on both sides.

A longtime ally of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia has backed Islamabad’s promotion of the Taliban. Over the years, wealthy Saudi sheikhs and rich philanthropists have also stoked the war by privately financing the insurgents.

All the while, Saudi Arabia has officially, if coolly, supported the American mission and the Afghan government and even secretly sued for peace in clandestine negotiations on their behalf.

The Saudis don’t officially support the Taliban, they just look the other way as the Taliban raises tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars inside the kingdom (pilgrimage trips to Mecca are a great time to hit up elites from all over the Muslim world for help). The Taliban’s latest offensives are reportedly backed by an influx of foreign cash, much of it raised in Saudi Arabia, of upwards of a billion dollars. Then, of course, there’s all the Saudi money that goes to finance hardline mosques, schools, and other organizations in the region that, wittingly or not, train the next generation of Taliban fighters in extremist interpretations of Islam.

Potentially, of course, all this financing for the Taliban puts the Saudis in a position to leverage the Taliban to negotiate with Kabul. But Riyadh apparently doesn’t have any interest in doing that.


Physicians for Human Rights is accusing Indian forces of “blocking medical treatment for wounded protesters in the disputed region of Kashmir by holding up ambulances and harassing hospitalised patients.” The latest round of unrest in Kashmir has been going on for about five months and has seen 80 people killed, many shot with live ammunition by Indian security forces–live ammunition being a lousy way of controlling protests unless your real interest is in killing protesters.


Kofi Annan, visiting at the head of a delegation to assess the situation with respect to the Rohingya, said today that he was “deeply concerned” with what he saw and called on the country’s security forces to protect civilians and maintain the rule of law. Annan’s commission, with notably doesn’t actually include any Rohingya and has promised not to challenge the 1982 law that stripped the Rohingya of their citizenship and thus enabled much of what has happened since, is expected to unveil its one step “don’t do that” plan in the coming days, to be followed by its one-point “I’m very disappointed in you” punishment for any ongoing acts of ethnic cleansing.


Belgian authorities have picked up eight people on suspicion of working for ISIS by raising funds and recruiting fighters to go to Syria.

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