Conflict update: January 3 2017

Happy New Year, everybody! I had some grand vision of leaping right back into blogging today, but some car trouble (a false alarm, luckily) and a little “I need a vacation from my vacation” syndrome combined to stifle most of those plans. It is a new year though, so I assume that all the bad stuff from last year hit the reset button while I was away and we’re back to a clean slate.


Oh, shit. As you might expect, since it’s been a few days, this could get long.


Big story, already covered elsewhere.


Miraculously, against long odds, the Syrian ceasefire negotiated by Russia and Turkey has held and appears to be leading to a renewed push toward a negotiated peace to end the Syrian civil war. There are just two small technical glitches to overcome: one, the fighting has never actually stopped, and two, because the fighting has never actually stopped the Syrian rebels announced today that they’re suspending their involvement in peace talks. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?

There was, believe it or not, a small window where it actually looked like this truce might work. The UN Security Council adopted a resolution in support on Saturday and fighting did seem to decrease, except for clashes in Idlib and Hama, places where groups not party to the ceasefire–JFS, in particular–are prominent. But then the fighting just kept escalating, particularly over the springs in the Wadi Barada region outside Damascus. Wadi Barada supplies a significant portion of the capital’s water supply, and as you know that supply has been cut lately, due to rebel sabotage or government bombing or both, and Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been besieging the area in an effort to starve the rebels out and secure the water. They claim JFS is active in Wadi Barada and therefore it’s not covered by the ceasefire, but the rebels clearly disagree, which is why several rebel groups announced today that they will no longer participate in the proposed Kazakhstan-based peace talks unless and until the government decides to fully implement the ceasefire.

I’m not planning on holding my breath.

Playing out on the sidelines of the rapidly collapsing ceasefire and accompanying peace talks is the tug of war between Iran and Turkey over Russia that I wrote about a few days ago. The Turks and Iranians have absolutely nothing in common in Syria apart from their chummy relationship with Moscow, and consequently somebody is going to have to come away the loser if their triumvirate is going to survive. So far that’s been Turkey, which has abandoned its direct pursuit of Assad’s ouster, but you can see the Turks trying to cultivate ties between Moscow and the Syrian rebel groups with which it has sway. There, too, though, Ankara has a pretty weak hand, since it doesn’t have much sway over the strongest (and most extreme) rebel factions–JFS, Ahrar al-Sham, the Zenki Movement–so it can’t really deliver what Moscow wants, which is an end to the rebellion in exchange for a political settlement. Iran is in the stronger position but it’s also clearly keeping an eye on the budding Turkish-Russian bromance to make sure its interests are protected.


One of the generals commanding the US effort in Mosul says he believes ISIS’s capabilities in the eastern half of the city are finally starting to wane:

“They’ve got a finite amount of resource that are on the eastern side and the fact that their capability is waning indicates that those resources are starting to dwindle,” U.S. Army Major General Joseph Martin, head of ground forces for the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, told Reuters on Sunday.

“I see the commanders’ reporting coming in and I see the exquisiteness of their SVBIED (suicide vehicle borne improvised explosive device) system, the sophistication of their SVBIEDs continuing to get lower and lower, the boom of the different IEDs continuing to have a lower yield – all tell me that the enemy’s capacity is diminishing over time. We see that as a positive indicator,” he said in a phone interview from Baghdad.

Susceptibility to this kind of attrition has always been ISIS’s fatal weakness in Mosul, but it’s certainly not the way the Iraqi military wanted to win this fight. In addition to the losses incurred in coalition airstrikes and at the hands of Iraqi ground forces, every suicide attack ISIS carries out costs it manpower and explosives that it can’t replace–but it also takes Iraqi soldiers with it. It’s not clear how many Iraqi soldiers have been killed during the Mosul operation, but it is clear that the Iraqi government doesn’t want that number to be made public, which suggests it’s fairly high. On the plus side, though, at least there has been steady progress in clearing out east Mosul neighborhoods since the offensive resumed a few days ago.

ISIS’s capabilities in Baghdad unfortunately seem to remain fairly unchanged. The group set off five separate car bombs in the Iraqi capital yesterday, killing at least 64 people. The two largest attacks targeted the predominantly Shiʿa Sadr City neighborhood. Three ISIS bombings killed 29 people in Baghdad on Saturday. Also yesterday, suicide bombers attacked two police stations in Samarra, and there were even reports that ISIS had seized part of the city, but if those reports were actually true it seems the militants were fairly quickly driven back. The day before, an ISIS attack on an Iraqi police station near Najaf killed seven police officers. And, as we’ve covered here already, intra-Kurdish tensions between the Kurdistan Regional Government and the PKK are threatening to break out into open conflict.


An Egyptian court has upheld the Sisi government’s right to turn over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia. An earlier court ruling declared the transfer unconstitutional, but that ruling was overturned on appeal. This ruling upheld the appeal. A separate ruling is expected early next month on the legality of the parliamentary vote on the transfer. In related news, 12 people were arrested yesterday in Cairo for protesting the transfer, which is the first thing in some time that’s really raised Egyptian ire toward President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

In the Sinai, two Egyptian soldiers were killed on Saturday in a bombing likely perpetrated by ISIS’s Sinai affiliate.


Yemeni forces loyal to President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi attacked an al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula stronghold in southern Yemen today and 26 people–15 AQAP fighters, 11 Yemeni soldiers–were killed in the ensuing fight.

On Saturday, The Washington Post published an interesting look at the role former President Ali Abdullah Saleh has been playing in the rebellion. Saleh, whose government routinely waged war against the Houthis from the beginning of their latest insurgency in 2004 through Saleh’s ouster as president/dictator in 2012, latched on to the rebel group as his ticket back into power in 2014 and hasn’t looked back:

Saleh meets regularly with Houthi leaders, securing the influence of his party through his political skills, and deftly uses social media.

“We benefit a lot from his presence,” said Faiqah al-Sayed, a top official in Saleh’s party. “Perhaps, it is the wisdom of God that he’s still here with us.”

Saleh has declared on television that his alliance has enough weapons to wage war for another decade, if the peace talks don’t go its way. He has remained defiant, even under U.N. sanctions imposed on him, rallying hundreds of thousands of supporters in street protests.

“He’s now in the strongest position since he left office,” said Riyadh al-Ahmedi, a Yemeni political analyst.

Saleh sees his new role as more “kingmaker” than “king,” and he may be maneuvering to hand the country to his son, Ahmed Ali Saleh. There are reports of tension between the Houthis and Saleh’s people behind the scenes–and if Saleh is really working to install his son as Yemen’s new ruler you can understand why that might be–but as long as the Saudi coalition gives them a common enemy it’s unlikely that you’ll see a real split between them.


A “Taliban ambush” in Afghanistan’s northern Badakhshan province earlier today killed four Afghan police officers.

Al Jazeera ran a sad piece a couple of days ago on the decline of the country’s indigenous Hindu and Sikh communities. From a population of roughly 700,000 in the 1970s, today there are maybe 7000 Hindus and Sikhs in the whole country. The communities suffered terribly (thousands fled) under the Mujahideen government that preceded the Taliban, were treated less badly by the Taliban, and began to return to Afghanistan after the Taliban were driven out of power. But now they’re being persecuted again by some of the same of Mujahideen warlords, who returned to political prominence under the Karzai and now Ghani governments. Most have fled the country again, primarily to India.

North Korea/World War III

North Korea is reportedly much closer to testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, which could reach the continental United States, than most people had guessed heading into 2016. They’ve apparently made significant strides in rocket technology, particularly in “cold launch” tech and heat shields to allow warhead reentry into the atmosphere, over the past year. It’s not clear whether they have the capability of putting a nuclear warhead on an ICBM yet, but they’ve also reportedly made significant strides in terms of nuclear miniaturization technology, so chances are they’re pretty close on that front as well.


A short time ago as I write this, Muslim separatist rebels, likely from a splinter group of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (insert MILF joke here), stormed a prison in Kidapawan and freed a little over 150 inmates. Well, “freed” may be exaggerating; some of the prisoners may have simply availed themselves of the opportunity to escape. The main Moro Front is still under a ceasefire with the government, but as with any rebellion there’s always some cadre of hardcore fighters who refuse to go along with such things.


One of the members of the Government of National Accord’s presidential council, Musa al-Koni, announced his resignation from that body yesterday, citing…well, its utter failure to achieve the task for which it was created: reunifying the country. The council hasn’t even been able to run itself smoothly, and there are just nine guys on it.

The man who is inevitably, let’s be frank, going to wind up running Libya whenever the dust finally settles, Khalifa Haftar, has decided to step up the fighting against the GNA, opting to withdraw from planned talks with GNA head Fayez Seraj in Algiers. Haftar says he’s all about democracy or whatever, but that the current “state of war” with “extremists” has to be ended before Libya can attempt to hold elections again. But I’m sure once that’s over he’ll be the first to call for democratic reforms.


Somebody killed 11 people in a camp for displaced people in Darfur earlier today, and the argument over who it was may wind up being more dangerous than the actual attack. Witnesses reported that the gunmen appeared to be wearing Sudanese military uniforms, so naturally most suspicion has fallen on the Sudanese government, but the government is accusing the SPM Abdelwahed rebel group of carrying out the attack.

Sudanese President, and frequent cover model for “Unindicted War Criminals Monthly,” Omar al-Bashir announced on Saturday that he’s extending a “unilateral ceasefire,” in all the country’s various rebel hot spots (Darfur, Blue Nile, and Kordofan), for another month. So clearly it couldn’t have been his men who killed those people in Darfur…right?


Yesterday an al-Shabab suicide bomber killed three people outside the Mogadishu Airport in an attack that may have targeted the headquarters of the African Union’s Somali peacekeeping mission, AMISOM.

The Gambia

Yahya Jammeh doesn’t seem to be going anywhere despite the fact that he lost last month’s presidential election and should be vacating his office fairly soon. On the contrary, his security forces are busy shutting down unfriendly media outlets and chasing electoral commissioners out of the country, which are not the kinds of things you do when you’re on the way out the door. The Gambian political opposition has said that Jammeh will be declared a “rebel” if he refuses to abide by the election results, and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) is still talking about deploying troops if Jammeh won’t vacate. In a speech on Saturday, Jammeh deemed ECOWAS’s threats a “declaration of war” against The Gambia, as though Jammeh himself hadn’t already declared war against his own country by rejecting the election results.


The Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (insert MEND joke here), a formerly potent militant group that swore off violence in 2009, claims it has “lost confidence” in Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari to peacefully resolve the violence in that part of the country. Delta residents want a larger share of the country’s oil wealth to be put into their region and want stronger environmental regulations on the oil industry, and after a period of peace in the region following a 2009 amnesty violence began to tick up again last year.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Over the weekend DRC President Joseph Kabila and his political opposition apparently reached a deal that would end his never-ending presidency. Under the terms of the agreement, Kabila will remain in office until the end of this year (he should’ve been gone at the end of 2016) and in return he will promise not to stand for reelection and to actually, you know, leave office this time. He will govern through 2017 alongside a transition council and a prime minister that will be drawn from among the opposition. Success! Well, except for the fact that Kabila hasn’t yet signed the deal. Which may be significant, but there’s really no way to know unless and until he signs or we reach December 2017 and it’s once again time for him to depart. It’s possible, as the NYT suggests, that Kabila is withholding his signature until he gets some assurances that he’ll be allowed to keep the wealth he’s stolen from the Congolese people and/or that he won’t be prosecuted for the theft.


The ceasefire between government and rebel forces that was reached over the New Year’s holiday has been extended another two months in order to allow time for peace talks.

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