Conflict update, December 8


The situation in Aleppo as of December 4–green areas under rebel control, red under government control, those dull yellow areas are the current frontlines (Wikimedia | Kami888)

According to Russia, the Syrian army has halted offensive actions in Aleppo and is focusing on evacuating civilians. Which may come as news to the rebels, who continue to report that the fighting is ongoing. The army has captured Aleppo’s Old City and rejected a rebel call for a five day ceasefire to allow evacuations. It’s not clear whether this halt, assuming it’s real, is related to those ongoing talks between the Russians and Americans on plans to try to get the rebels out of Aleppo instead of the civilians, but so far there’s been no indication of a breakthrough there. The government expects Aleppo’s fall to lead to a “domino effect” that will bury the rest of the rebellion, but the likelihood that the rebels will just surrender rather than transition into something more like a guerrilla resistance seems slim.

After going several days without any strikes, the Turkish air force struck a number of ISIS targets around al-Bab yesterday, killing a reported 23 fighters.

There are signs that Egypt may be considering sending forces to Syria to aid Assad, though so far Cairo is denying it. Sisi, as a Sunni and someone who relies to a significant extent on financial aid from some of Assad’s biggest foes (the Gulf monarchies), seems like a candidate to send aid to the rebels if anything. But Sisi also recognizes the value of helping out a fellow military dictator against Islamist rebels, given his own circumstances, and he and Assad seem to have a rapport. The fact that Riyadh hasn’t been making with the regular aid lately probably has Sisi feeling a little salty as well. Still, take this with a grain of salt; if anything, this may simply be Sisi’s way of getting King Salman’s attention.


A couple of days ago Iraqi forces announced that they’d made huge, sudden gains in Aleppo, moving close to the Tigris river and seizing al-Salam Hospital. Unfortunately, the Iraqis appear to have gotten too greedy, and yesterday a failure to consolidate their gains turned the hospital into an ISIS trap:

A few hours later, as the sun set Tuesday evening, the trap was sprung. First came the suicide car bombs, and then the hospital was surrounded by hundreds of militants firing bursts of heavy machine gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

“We thought we were going to die, all we could think about was saving our lives,” Pvt. Mithad Abdulzahra of the Iraqi army’s 9th Division said later, as he recovered in a hospital bed in the nearby city of Irbil from gunshots that shattered his right arm. The IS fighters eventually fought their way inside the al-Salam hospital. Of the 100 or so Iraqi soldiers trapped there, nearly all were killed or wounded, he said.

Survivors were eventually able to retreat, but such is the problem with an operation that is taking longer than the politicians would like it to take. There’s pressure to advance too quickly, which is when things can go very wrong.

The speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Salim al-Jabouri, is calling for an investigation into Iraqi airstrikes on the western town of al-Qaim yesterday that reportedly killed civilians. How many civilians were killed is a matter of some dispute. The government says it had credible intelligence that the houses it targeted were full of ISIS fighters.

To the west, the Popular Mobilization Units are struggling to maintain control over the road from Mosul to Tal Afar, and are being left to twist in the wind a bit as an Iraqi government force is assembled to enter Tal Afar itself. The PMU can’t attack Tal Afar without risking a Turkish response. Speaking of the western front, Reuters reported yesterday that the Iraqi government’s initial plan for the Mosul operation was to leave the west open so that civilians could flee Mosul and any ISIS fighters who were less than committed to the cause might have an escape corridor to Syria. The goal, after all, was to take back Mosul, not kill all the ISIS fighters there, so leaving them a way out could potentially have been pretty smart.

Well, as it turns out, Iran, Russia, and France objected–Iran and Russia to the idea that these fighters would be allowed to flee into Syria, and France to the idea that fighters could escape Mosul and eventually make their way to, say, France, to commit terror attacks. So the plan was changed to have the PMU close off the western route, and consequently hundreds of thousands of civilians are stuck inside the city and ISIS is committed to fighting to the death because they can’t really do anything else. On the plus side, I guess, the encirclement of the city has opened up new economic opportunities for people willing to smuggle civilians (the ones who can afford to pay, anyway) out of the city. Hilariously (in a morbid way), the smugglers may very well be ISIS fighters. The True Believers of ISIS literally never miss an opportunity to make some cash.

War on Terror

By America’s “conservative estimate,” ISIS has lost 50,000 fighters in Iraq and Syria over the past two years. Which is a nice round number, I guess, but it’s pretty free of context. The task now is to deprive ISIS of its territory in Syria and Iraq, and whether it takes 50,000 or 5000 or 50 dead fighters to do it, the real goal is the territory, not the body count.


Washington is “urging” the Yemeni government to accept the UN roadmap it just rejected a couple of days ago. Good luck with that.


The Egyptian government is about to be facing a lawsuit before the International Court of Justice. Tens of thousands of Nubians were semi-forcibly relocated in the 1960s during the construction of the Aswan High Dam and were promised the chance to return to their original lands after the construction was finished, but it’s now the 2010s and, what do you know, they still haven’t been allowed to return. Who could have predicted? Cairo is now apparently trying to sell off the Nubians’ native lands, which is pretty brazen and also, as I say, potentially grounds for an international lawsuit. The Nubians have given the government until December 17 to meet its obligations per its 1960s agreements and Egypt’s 2014 constitution (which also says the Nubians must be returned to their lands and the area must be developed) or else they’re going to the ICJ. I suppose this doesn’t really count as a “conflict” yet, but the potential for protests is high, particularly if the case does wind up at the ICJ and Egypt, international “law” being what it is, decides to just ignore any verdict against it.


Al-Monitor has a deep dive into that seriously bizarre story about how somebody’s pet monkey caused days’ worth of violence in the southern Libyan city of Sabha last month:

A group of girls were walking home from school in a quiet Libyan town on Nov. 21, when a pet monkey from a shop jumped over one of them and retreated to the shop with her headscarf. It could have been a funny incident — people could have just laughed about it and then forgot the whole thing. But not in Sabha, an oasis city in southern Libya, where tribal tensions have been simmering with occasional violent eruptions since the regime of Moammar Gadhafi was toppled with help from NATO in October 2011.

Right after she got home, the girl, whose name has not been released, told her family what happened. A few minutes later, members of her family shot dead the shopkeeper and his monkey. News of the event quickly spread around the city, and full war erupted between the two main tribes in Sabha — Awlad Suleiman, to which the girl belongs, and the shopkeeper’s Qadhadhfa tribe, the same as that of the late Gadhafi.

It is hard to give a precise figure, but by the time tribal mediators brokered a cease-fire 10 days later, 20 people were killed while 50 others were injured, according to news reports and social media pages. Properties, including private homes and schools, sustained extensive damage.

Well, OK then. Hey, at least the Sirte operation is finally over, which means Libyans can finally breathe a sigh of relie-

Just hours after the last district in Sirte was cleared, fighters in a newly formed force swept up from the desert south of the city towards Libya’s Oil Crescent, looking to recapture ports that had changed hands three months before.

Tripoli has seen its worst clashes for more than a year as the capital’s militias rolled tanks onto the streets in a feud infused with ideological and political disputes.

And in the main city in the east, the self-styled Libyan National Army (LNA) continued to suffer heavy casualties as it struggles to secure parts of Benghazi against Islamist-led rivals after more than two years of warfare.

A half-formed, U.N.-backed government based in the capital looks increasingly helpless to stop the turmoil – though Western powers insist that it represents the only path towards peace.

The newest of these developments involves the oil crescent ports, where Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army is trying to defend ports it just captured in September from forces affiliated with those Benghazi Islamists. So far it seems that the LNA has maintained control over the ports. Speaking of Hafter, he’s been meeting with the Russians about possibly giving Moscow a naval base in eastern Libya in exchange for weapons and military assistance for the LNA.

Also, just to be clear, ISIS isn’t really out of Libya, it’s just dispersed. Good times all around.


Somali forces have recaptured the town of Qandala, in Puntland, from fighters linked to ISIS, to the tune of 30 dead militants and four dead soldiers. The fighters, who split from al-Shabaab to join ISIS, captured Qandala in late October and had been squatting there since then.

Nigeria and the Sahel

The UN is looking to raise $2.66 billion to deal with malnourishment and other humanitarian challenges in eight countries in the Sahel: Chad, Mali, Niger, Cameroon, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Senegal. Climate change affecting precipitation is a major problem, but arguably bigger is the years-long conflict with Boko Haram in Nigeria and the surrounding countries.


Speaking of Russia, the Russian government is denying reports that it’s been aiding the Taliban–which, if those reports are true, talk about your 180 degree turns. It does seem like Moscow and the Taliban have been talking, but there’s no evidence of any direct Russian aid of the usual (i.e., military) variety. Still, it’s not the kind of thing that’s likely to make anybody in Kabul feel very good.

A new survey by the Asia Foundation finds that less than 30 percent of Afghans think their country is headed in the right direction, which frankly seems high to me. Confidence in public institutions is at record lows, but confidence in religious leaders remains pretty high, which could be good, maybe? Maybe those religious leaders can help keep desperate people from signing on with the Taliban or ISIS.


A firefight between Indian and Kashmiri separatist forces in the village of Arwani earlier today killed at least one civilian.


For once here’s some news from Myanmar that doesn’t have to do with the Rohingya. Clashes with rebels in the country’s northern Shan state have killed 11 people and led to some uncomfortable tensions with neighboring China, which is on alert for rebel fighters attempting to cross into China.


Rebels of the Communist Party of the Philippines are warning that they’re prepared to resume their guerrilla insurgency unless government troops are withdrawn from areas where the rebels are influential. They announced a ceasefire in August but say they won’t extend it past next month without some moves by Manila.

Meanwhile, Leni Roberto, the Philippines vice-president and housing minister, resigned her cabinet ministry on Monday, citing opposition to President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration and alleging a plot to remove her from the vice-presidency, which in the Philippines is elected separately from the presidency and is an independent office. Duterte rushed to assure the public that Roberto would not be removed as VP, but this could be his first major crisis in office.


The UN’s special envoy on Cyprus says that Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan is interested in finally settling the frozen conflict that has divided that nation ever since Turkey occupied part of it in the 1970s. With Turkey’s relationship with the EU fraying and its ambitions in Syria circling the drain, and with the Turkish military no longer as powerful inside Turkey as it once was, Erdoğan may have both the interest and the latitude to make something happen at a January summit intended to begin the process of reunifying the island.


German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier says that “uncertainty” over how the Trump administration will approach Russia is preventing action on implementing the Minsk accord to bring a definitive end to the fighting in Ukraine. His election really has been the gift that keeps on giving.

World War II

Peace in our time?

If all goes according to plan, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will slip into a steaming bath next week with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a hot spring in Abe’s hometown of Nagato, which faces Russia across the Sea of Japan. Abe’s goal in hosting Putin at a traditional onsen, as such hot spring baths are known, is nothing less than making history — to persuade the Russian leader to finally sign a peace treaty that would formally settle World War II. This deal has eluded Russian and Japanese leaders many times since their first failed attempt in 1956, always foundering on a dispute over a string of islands that run within miles of Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido and were seized by the Red Army in the last days of that war.

Better late than never, I guess, but while both countries have an interest in improving their relationship, the underlying issue of the Kuril Islands is still there and, at least per that Foreign Policy report, doesn’t seem all that close to being resolved. Russia and Japan have been circling an arrangement for about 60 years where by Russia would return the two smallest islands to Japanese control, but Japan has never been willing to accept that deal and it’s not entirely clear that Russia has ever been sincere in offering it.

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4 thoughts on “Conflict update, December 8

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