Conflict update: December 29 2016

and that’s the way it was is hitting the road for a few days and, if it’s all the same to you fine readers, I’d kind of like to turn the blog more or less off and take a real break. That means we won’t be back to regular posting until January 3. Happy New Year and see you in 2017!

What? Oh, right, one more round of mostly shitty news before I go.

World War III

The long-mehwaited American response to Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election was unveiled today:

The targets of the sanctions include Moscow’s top intelligence services, the Federal Security Service and the Main Intelligence Directorate, as well as three companies and a handful of individuals. Among the individuals are top officials from the Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU.

The State Department expelled 35 Russian operatives from the Russian embassy in Washington and the Russian consulate in San Francisco on Thursday. The officials and their families were given 72 hours to leave the U.S.

The State Department also notified Russia that as of Friday Moscow would be denied access to two Russian government-owned compounds—one in Maryland and one in New York.

This is…about what you’d have expected, it seem to me. There’s been took much noise about this story for the Obama administration not to have done something, even though as far as I can tell (or at least as far as anybody outside the intelligence community has been allowed to know) the evidence behind this accusation against Moscow is still pretty circumstantial. And this is definitely something. These are tangible actions that will hurt Russia a little and embarrass it more, and they’ll be tough for Donald Trump to undo without raising eyebrows. What they’re not is anything that could honestly be categorized as an escalation, if you’re operating from the assumption that Russia has indeed screwed with America’s electoral process.

Moscow will now respond as it can (at least 35 US diplomatic personnel in Russia will certainly be expelled within the next few days, for example), and that will be about it. President Obama said today’s actions aren’t the end of the US response, but realistically this is about it at least as far as a public response. Obama also ordered the release of information on Russian cyber-activity that could help US individuals and businesses take stronger security precautions, and if you ask me that’s the most impactful part of today’s actions. Assuming anybody actually bothers taking those precautions.

Speaking of responses, let’s see what President-elect Trump had to say about all of this yesterday:

President-elect Donald Trump is less than enthusiastic about some senators’ suggestion that Russia ― and perhaps even Vladimir Putin himself ― should be sanctioned for interfering in the U.S. elections, telling reporters Wednesday that it’s time people move on.

For Trump, the real culprit isn’t the Russian president or his hackers. It’s computers and technology.

“I think we ought to get on with our lives,” Trump said Wednesday, according to the pool report. He was at his Mar-a-Lago resort, standing next to boxing promoter Don King. “I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on. We have speed, we have a lot of other things, but I’m not sure we have the kind the security we need. But I have not spoken with the senators and I will certainly will be over a period of time.”

Ah, I-uh, that’s very, ahhhh, he’s got a…well I think what he means is, see, there are computers, and they have speed, and a lot of other…things…and…the senators, also too. Hail to the Chief!

War on Terror

So this is potentially interesting:

After months of no signs of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, a US official told CNN on Thursday, “in the last few weeks we’ve been aware of some of Baghdadi’s movements.”

Unverified social media reports circulated in recent weeks that Baghdadi might have been injured or killed, but several US officials have said those reports are not accurate, and this latest information would indicate Baghdadi is still alive.

The government isn’t saying that it’s tracking Baghdadi’s movements, just that it knows where he’s been lately. I assume this has been going on since before Iraqi forces captured Abu Harith al-Matuiti yesterday, but Matuiti is allegedly Baghdadi’s “assistant,” and that can’t hurt. Killing Baghdadi probably wouldn’t be much more than a symbolic victory at this point, but hey, it would still be a victory.


A nationwide ceasefire of some description went into effect at midnight, local time, after the Syrian government and the Syrian National Coalition agreed to a Russian-Turkish brokered deal. Any ceasefire is a hopeful sign, obviously, but I’m as skeptical of this one as I’ve been of every past Syrian ceasefire, because the same problem still exists–what to do about Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. The seeds of this ceasefire’s failure are already germinating:

Perhaps most perilously, there appear to be continued disagreements about the status of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, the successor to the Al Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra rebel group which controls a large section of Idlib province in the northwest. Iranian and Syrian media said the truce excludes the group and its allies, while rebels said the truce also covers Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which was not among more than half a dozen rebel groups that reportedly signed onto the deal.

“Most of the Free Syrian Army factions in the north signed the agreement except Fatah al-Sham, but they are included after we have put pressure on international powers to include them,” said Bayoush, the Idlib Free Army official. “They overlap on us and on civilians, and any bombing of them will result in massacres of civilians.”

Just because officers in the “Idlib Free Army” say that JFS is included, that doesn’t make it so. And if Syria disagrees and its airstrikes against JFS spillover to other rebel groups, then, well, that won’t really be good for the ceasefire, will it?

Beyond JFS, while it’s possible that sheer exhaustion might make this ceasefire stick where others haven’t, and while Turkey’s direct involvement in the negotiations is potentially a good sign, the other big obstacle to a final political settlement still exists–what to do about Bashar al-Assad, and how to get both Iran and Turkey to sign off on a transition when they are 180 degrees apart on Assad’s future role.

In Damascus, the Russian embassy was hit again by a mortar shell, but there were no casualties. Meanwhile, the Syrian army is still pressing to gain control over two rebel-held springs outside the capital that normally supply about 70 percent of the city’s drinking water. The UN says that some 4 million people haven’t had access to enough clean water over the past week because somebody–maybe the rebels deliberately or maybe the government accidentally/collaterally–has cut the supply.

A coalition airstrike near Tabaqa Dam, west of Raqqa, allegedly killed alleged senior ISIS commander Abu Jandal al-Kuwaiti (presumably a pseudonym). So there’s that.


The Mosul offensive has finally come unpaused, with Iraqi forces resuming their assault on the city’s Quds neighborhood and clashing with ISIS defenders in the city’s northeast. The new plan seems to be that Iraqi forces will abandon any attempt at assaulting western Mosul simultaneously with eastern Mosul. Instead, federal police and other forces have reinforced Iraqi units on fronts to the city’s east, north, and southeast, and will push on all three in an effort to secure the eastern side of the city first. This explains the stepped up air campaign against the city’s bridges, in an effort to isolate the eastern side of the city. With police units in place to secure neighborhoods, army forces can concentrate on advancing without having to stretch themselves too thin carrying out multiple assignments.


As the one GCC country that tends not to fall in line when Riyadh snaps its fingers, it’s kind of a big deal that Oman announced today that it will join Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Justice League Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism. It’s also a big deal in that Oman becomes the first non-Sunni confirmed member of the club–Lebanon is supposedly in the alliance, according to the Saudis, and it’s mixed Sunni-Shiʿa-Christian, but Beirut has never actually said it’s participating. The Omanis said today that they’re committed to fighting terrorism but won’t go along if the alliance turns into an anti-Iran coalition, so their ongoing participation could be an important bellwether as to Saudi intentions.

…OK, I wasn’t going to get into this because it feels like trafficking in rumors (because it is trafficking in rumors), but there are a lot of rumors floating around Twitter this evening that Sultan Qaboos has died. He’s been dying of cancer for some time now, and is probably not much longer for this world even if he’s not dead already, but if he has passed then that might help explain why the Omanis decided to join the coalition. Qaboos famously never picked a successor and never fathered any children, so Oman is staring at a succession crisis unless the ruling Said family can come to an accord. In such a situation, and without Qaboos around to run things, it is very possible the Oman could find itself sliding into a Saudi orbit. Perhaps this is the first sign of that.


The long-stalled deal to sell return hand over two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, to Saudi Arabia has now been submitted to the Egyptian parliament for approval. Of course, the legality of the handover is very much in question per Egypt’s judicial system, so that might still be a tiny problem. Clearly, though, Riyadh’s decision to stop underwriting Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s government is starting to have some effect, if he’s willing to risk public outcry by returning to this islands deal.

Armenia and Azerbaijan

Three Armenian soldiers were killed and one Azerbaijani soldier went MIA in a border skirmish today. I consistently overlook Armenia-Azerbaijan when people ask me where the next significant war is likely to break out, but it’s definitely high on the list. I also overlook it as a potential source of tension between Russia and Iran, but it’s that too.


A group of Nobel laureates wrote an open letter to the UN Security Council urging it to take action to stop the Rohingya genocide and, explicitly criticizing a Myanmar government led by fellow Nobel winner Aung San Suu Kyi. That’s going to make for an awkward time at the next reunion.

Rebels in Kachin, the northernmost state in Myanmar, are also criticizing Suu Kyi for escalating violence in their state since she took power. They’re not laying the blame at her feet, but they are contending that she’s given the military too much latitude, as her civilian government tries to co-exist with the remaining elements of the junta that ran the country without civilian input from the 1960s through 2011.


Abubakar Shekau recorded a brand new video to let everybody know that they shouldn’t worry, he and Boko Haram (or at least his branch of it) are doing just fine. There’s no way to know when he recorded it, but given that it seems to have been a direct response to the government’s recent claims that it’s “crushed” Boko Haram, presumably he made it sometime this week.

Elsewhere, Nigerian police announced that they’d thwarted a plot concocted by “oil militants,” likely from the Niger Delta Avengers or another Delta militant group, to blow up a major bridge in Lagos.

Burkina Faso

The Burkinan military has a new commander. A raid by jihadists from Mali earlier this month killed 12 soldiers in northern Burkina Faso, the latest in a string of worrisome spillover attacks (including January’s terrorist attack on a hotel in Ouagadougou) that Burkinan authorities haven’t been able to stop. Public unhappiness prompted President Roch Marc Christian Kabore to replace his military chief of staff, General Pingrenoma Zagre, with Colonel Oumarou Sadou.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Africa Is a County, my favorite site for African news and analysis, has a nice piece today connecting increasing unrest in the eastern DRC to the political crisis surrounding Joseph Kabila and his never-ending presidency. The longer Kinshasa stays in chaos, and with Kabila more interested in throwing opposition leaders in prison than in negotiating a peaceful transition it could be a while, the more peripheral regions begin to revert to more traditional kinds of governance, and that generally means inter-group conflict.


America isn’t the only country that believes it’s been the victim of Russian cyberwarfare:

Hackers have targeted Ukrainian state institutions about 6,500 times in the past two months, including incidents that showed Russian security services were waging a cyberwar against the country, President Petro Poroshenko said on Thursday.

In December, Ukraine suffered attacks on its finance and defense ministries and the State Treasury that allocates cash to government institutions. A suspected hack also wiped out part of Kiev’s power grid, causing a blackout in part of the capital.

“Acts of terrorism and sabotage on critical infrastructure facilities remain possible today,” Poroshenko said during a meeting of the National Security and Defence Council, according to a statement released by Poroshenko’s office.

The statement said the president stressed that “the investigation of a number of incidents indicated the complicity directly or indirectly of Russian security services waging a cyberwar against our country”.

Ukraine is obviously not in much of a position to do anything about it.

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