Conflict update: December 13, 2016

Lots to cover today, unfortunately.


Russia’s UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, told the UN Security Council today that the Syrian government is now fully in control of Aleppo and that military operations in the city have stopped. Now, this is the second or third, or tenth or whatever, time that the Russians have said the fighting in Aleppo is over, and the only common thread in all those previous announcements has been that the fighting wasn’t over. But this time even the rebels are apparently saying that the fighting is over and that they’ve reached a ceasefire agreement with the government that will allow rebel fighters to be evacuated from the city. So maybe the fighting really is over. Prior to the apparent ceasefire, there were plenty of reports coming out of the city about Bashar al-Assad’s troops massacring civilians, women in the city choosing to kill themselves rather than risk being assaulted by the attackers, and other terrible atrocities. And I’m not saying these things didn’t happen. But in the midst of a violent battle, when many of the sources for these reports were active participants in the fighting, parsing this or that particular report of an atrocity is probably a fool’s errand. It’s enough to say that there were undoubtedly atrocities committed in Aleppo. The entire Aleppo battle–hell, the entire war, has been an atrocity.

Many web news outlets are reporting that ISIS has at least made some kind of assault on the T4 airbase, situated to the west of Palmyra (which ISIS captured two days ago). A few places of fairly dubious reliability are saying they’ve taken the base, but the consensus on Twitter seems to be that they have not managed that, at least not yet. The fight may be ongoing. The assault itself shows that ISIS is still on the move, though, which means that between reinforcements coming in from Iraq, the breakdown of plans to attack Raqqa, and Damascus’s decision to ignore everything except Aleppo, they’re back up off the mat.

The Turkish assault on al-Bab is running into trouble as their forces encounter ditches and booby traps set in place by ISIS to slow their advance. There is some speculation that Ankara might ask Washington to authorize airstrikes on al-Bab to help the campaign, but it’s not clear how the US would respond. Ideally, the Turks would be willing to stand down against the YPG in exchange for US strikes, but that seems like a long shot.

War on the Rocks has an interesting new piece by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi on the rise of an ISIS-affiliated militia named Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed in the Deraa area around Damascus. They reportedly had a run-in with Israeli forces on November 27 near the Golan Heights. It’s a revealing look into the rebellion’s constantly shifting militia structure and into the reluctance of even ISIS-affiliated units to engage Israel militarily.

The US announced that a drone strike last week in Raqqa killed two ISIS leaders connected to the November 2015 terror attack in Paris.


A group called Conflict Armament Research said today that ISIS’s weapons manufacturing program in Mosul “indicates a complex, centrally controlled industrial production system” that puts it on par with most nations’ arms making capabilities. Its analysts were apparently able to tour ISIS facilities in parts of eastern Mosul that have been secured by Iraqi forces. Thanks to a robust supply chain via Turkey, they were apparently able to standardize their weapons manufacturing across the “caliphate,” so that ammunition produced in one place was certain to fit weapons produced elsewhere.

Counter-terrorism forces in eastern Mosul reportedly liberated two more neighborhoods.


The number of people rounded up in the aftermath of Saturday’s bombing in Istanbul is now up to 568, all for their supposed ties to the PKK.


I’ve been erring in describing Sunday’s terrorist bombing in Cairo as having taken place at St. Mark’s Coptic Cathedral. In fact, as Michael Collins Dunn points out, the bombing took place at the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, AKA the Butrusiyah, which is situated very near to the cathedral. Dunn has a little information on the history of the church at that link. Either way, the bigger news is that ISIS just claimed responsibility for the bombing a short time ago in a message that promised more violence to come, directed specifically at Egypt’s Coptic Christians.


They said it could never happen, but the war in Yemen has finally gotten so horrific that the United States has cut off arms sales to Saudi Arabia. We did it! The war is over! Check it out:

The United States has decided not to move forward with the sale of some munitions that would support Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen over concerns about civilians casualties, a senior Obama administration official confirmed to ABC News.

“We continue to have concerns about the conflict in Yemen and how it has been waged, most especially the air campaign,” the official said. “Consequently, we have decided to not move forward with final approval on some sales of munitions. This reflects our continued, strong concerns with the flaws in the Coalition’s targeting practices and overall prosecution of the air campaign in Yemen. We are also exploring how to refocus training for the Saudi Air Force to address these kinds of issues.”

The weapons may include air-dropped, precision guided munitions according to an administration official who spoke to Reuters news service.

Oh. Well, um…not selling them some weapons is better than selling them those weapons, right? Progress? Baby steps? Uh, hooray for symbolic victories? Anybody? Yeah, OK, I mean, we’re not going to stop selling aircraft to the Saudis, and we’re going to keep maintaining their aircraft, and we’re going to keep selling them most weapons, and the UK is going to keep selling them cluster bombs, but, uh…I’m sorry, I forgot where I was going with this. Anyway, definitely a magnanimous gesture by the Obama administration to ensure that Yemenis killed by American-made ordinance from now on won’t be killed by American-made precision-guided ordinance. Hey, anybody give any thought to getting some food to all the Yemenis we’re responsible for starving? No? OK then.

As if things aren’t already as bad as they could possibly be in Yemen, there’s apparently a giant pile of toxic waste leeching into the country’s already meager water table. The pile has been there for a while, but the war is preventing any kind of waste management process that could filter the worst of the toxins out of the water.

Meanwhile, a probable US drone strike east of Sanaa reportedly killed four members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.


When God closes a door, He opens a window. So even as the United States stops selling a few weapons to the Saudis in order to show How Much We Care about the carnage in Yemen, we’re closing a deal with Kuwait to sell them $1.7 billion in hardware, including 240 new tanks. #Blessed.


A former provincial governor named Ahmad Ishchi is accusing Afghanistan’s vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, of abducting and torturing him last month. Dostum’s office says that Ishchi was arrested, not abducted, and that he’s lying about his treatment. Before he was brought in as VP and normalized by President Ashraf Ghani (who wanted to secure the political support of the country’s large Uzbek minority), Dostum was a long-time warlord and occasional general in the Afghan army, whose past human rights record is so horrific that, despite the fact that he’s the vice president of an American client state, has previously been barred from coming here by Washington. To be fair, a couple of years ago he did apologize for his past “mistakes,” which is nice.

The Afghan news agency Khaama Press is reporting that a US airstrike yesterday killed a commander of ISIS’s forces in Nangarhar province. Over the summer, the Obama administration expanded the US air mission in Afghanistan to allow for more airstrikes that weren’t necessarily in direct defense of American and Afghan forces.


The government has rejected Communist rebel demands that it withdraw its forces from rebel-dominated areas in return for an extension of a ceasefire put in place in August.


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but UNICEF said today it estimates that 400,000 children in northeastern Nigeria will face starvation next year, and 80,000 will die, unless the conflict with Boko Haram is somehow wrapped up. Note that’s just the number of kids who will starve to death because of the conflict, so it doesn’t include the children who will die at Boko Haram’s hands, either as victims or perpetrators of its suicide attacks.

The Gambia

The effort to convince President Yahya Jammeh to take the L and leave office peaceably is not going very well. A delegation from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) failed to talk Jammeh into stepping down, and Jammeh’s party is now formally challenging the election results in court. Which, since Gambian judges are all appointed by Jammeh and serve at his pleasure, will probably go well for them. Just to be sure, Jammeh ordered his soldiers to seize control of the headquarters of the country’s election commission earlier today. ECOWAS officials are already talking about where their troops are stationed around West Africa, so there’s that.


The country’s political opposition is demanding the resignation of mediator Benjamin Mkapa after he summarily declared that President Pierre Nkurunziza’s reelection in July 2015 was “legitimate.” Nkurunziza, of course, had to dance around the fact that he’d already served his constitutionally-limited two terms in office in order to stand for a third term, so even if you allow that the election itself was legitimate, it’s very debatable whether Nkurunziza should’ve been allowed to run in the first place. The unrest that followed Nkurunziza’s re-election saw 1000 people killed and considerably more disappeared, and caused concerns about a Rwanda-style ethnic conflict. Mkapa has been at the forefront of efforts this year to calm the situation down, and so this spat threatens to destabilize things again.

South Sudan

Riek Machar, South Sudan’s ex-vice president and continual rebel leader, is reportedly being held in what amounts to house arrest in South Africa, in order to prevent him from returning to South Sudan and contributing to the escalating violence. Machar wound up in South Africa for medical treatment, then flew to Ethiopia, where he was told he could either return to South Africa or be dropped off in the middle of Juba with no army to protect him. He opted to head back to South Africa.


Here’s an interesting fight between two esteemed (wait, why are you laughing?) Western institutions:

The prosecutor for the International Criminal Court accused the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday of failing to take “swift and concrete action” against countries refusing to arrest Sudan’s president and others accused of crimes against humanity and war crimes in Darfur.

Fatou Bensouda told the council that President Omar al-Bashir has crossed international borders 131 times since March 2009, including 14 visits to ICC member countries that are required to carry out arrest warrants.

She said ICC judges have issued 13 decisions against Sudan and countries that are ICC members seeking U.N. action for the failure to arrest al-Bashir and four others.

Recently, Uganda and Djibouti were held in non-compliance and last week the court announced that a public hearing would be held on April 7 “in relation to a possible finding of non-compliance” for South Africa’s failure to arrest al-Bashir, she said.

The ICC has its issues, but Omar al-Bashir is as deserving of swift and retributive justice as any human being currently occupying our planet, and the court certainly has a legitimate complaint against the Security Council. The problem is that the UN Security Council, a body that was designed to allow the victorious World War II Allies (plus France) to rule the world while pretending to listen to other countries, operates today not so much in order to get things done, but in order to prevent anything from getting done. Almost nothing of any consequence can actually survive the UNSC without drawing a veto from one of the five permanent members, and none of those five countries are the least bit interested in doing anything to give up or even water down the immense power each of them has to tell the rest of the world to go fuck itself. If you think there’s a sliver of a chance of any of this changing, then you apparently never familiarized yourself with the UNSC motto: “If it’s broke, don’t fix it.”

In other Sudan news that might turn ugly, the government is accusing Egypt of detaining Sudanese gold miners near the Red Sea, then of releasing them but confiscating their mining equipment. No response from Cairo so far.


A UN report released today says that migrants traveling through Libya to try to reach Europe are being subjected to terrible human rights abuses, including rape, forced labor, and torture, by smugglers.


The Ukrainian Defense Ministry’s website was apparently taken offline by a DDOS attack today, in what Kiev says was an attack aimed at preventing it from releasing news about the frozen conflict in eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, in Berlin, Angela Merkel and François Hollande took a meeting and then announced that they would both support extending EU sanctions against Russia in response to Moscow’s “very sluggish” implementation of the Minsk Agreement aimed at ending the eastern Ukraine fighting.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Here’s an oldie but goodie:

Separatists pushing to split up Bosnia along ethnic lines could endanger its bid to join the European Union and force international powers to intervene, the peace envoy for Bosnia has told Reuters.

The EU accepted Bosnia’s application to join three months ago and last week took the first step in what is certain to be a long accession process. But recently Serb and Croat nationalists have intensified calls to divide the country along ethnic lines.

“We have on one side integration into Europe and at the same time disintegration at home,” said international High Representative Valentin Inzko, whose office has helped maintain unity in Bosnia since the 1992-95 war.

“It can happen that the country will slow down its process even towards Brussels because disintegration could be stronger than integration,” he said.

“We would intervene if red lines are crossed, if they (the Bosnian Serbs) announce a referendum on independence – this would be such a red line.”

The Dayton Accords implemented a soft partition of the country into Serb- and Croat/Bosniak-controlled zones. This leaves the Serbs particularly in a powerful position to muck up the country’s accession to the EU unless their demands are met.


The Venezuelan government has closed its border with Colombia to try to stop the movement of gangs that reportedly buy subsidized goods in Venezuela and then sell them in Colombia for a profit. President Nicholas Maduro also announced that his government would be scrapping its 100 bolivar note, its highest currency denomination. The smugglers reportedly hoard Venezuelan currency, most of it in 100 bolivar notes, so eliminating the note altogether would render their currency worthless. Citizens, on the other hand, will have to exchange their 100 bolivar notes for smaller bills, which sounds like a recipe for mass chaos.


Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled today that the government can fast track its peace deal with FARC through congress, a big step toward ensuring that it will actually be implemented. If the court had ruled the other way and forced the deal to go through the regular legislative process, the opportunities for derailing it would have increased considerably.

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