Conflict update, January 8 2017


Iraqi counter-terrorism forces in east Mosul say they’ve reached the eastern bank of the Tigris River. Some Iraqi politicians are claiming that as much as 88 percent of the eastern half of the city has been liberated, which is probably a substantial exaggeration, but it’s impossible to dispute that the offensive has made significant progress since it restarted a couple of weeks ago.

Two suicide bombs struck Baghdad today, killing at least 16 people (I’ve seen other reports putting that number at 20 or higher) and wounding nearly 40 more. ISIS claimed responsibility for both.

Faced with the possibility that former Prime Minister and current Vice President Nouri al-Maliki may try to attempt a political comeback (this seems odd to say about a sitting VP, but Iraq’s vice presidencies are mostly powerless patronage jobs), people all over southern Iraq have been staging demonstrations urging him, more or less, to kindly crawl into a hole and stay there. Maliki, because he’s the kind of dick who draws huge crowds to protest against the very idea that he might get back into serious politics, is attributing the protests to a “rise in gang and outlaw militia activities.” Like I said, dick. Regardless, it appears his political career might–might–be over, mercifully for the Iraqi people.


Until the eventual battle for Idlib begins in earnest, the post-Aleppo center of the civil war seems to have shifted to Damascus, and particularly to the Wadi Barada, from where Damascus gets much of its water. Although on Saturday it looked like the situation in Wadi Barada might be headed toward a ceasefire and deal to repair damaged and/or sabotaged water infrastructure, today the Syrian government carried out airstrikes on the area in earnest. The continued fighting is putting the entire Russia-Turkey negotiated ceasefire in jeopardy–rebels have already suspended their participation in planned peace talks in Kazakhstan pending the government honoring the ceasefire, and now it seems they may declare the ceasefire null altogether. Additionally a car bomb, claimed by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, struck the government-held town of Saʿsaʿ, southwest of Damascus, killing five people per the latest count.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights says that of 178 documented violations of the ceasefire so far, 174 of them have been perpetrated by the government and its allies. This sounds like a pretty subjective count, and considering that most of these violations have probably taken place in Wadi Barada, with Damascus’s supply of drinking water hanging in the balance, it’s not hard to see why the government has been pushing the envelope. But it’s also not hard to see why the rebels have had enough. The government would probably argue, as it has been, that JFS has been operating in Wadi Barada and therefore the area is not covered by the ceasefire. The rebels have denied this, but whether JFS is there or not is almost irrelevant. This ceasefire, as every one before it, has the (fatal?) flaw that it tries to distinguish between rebels forces that are only distinguishable on paper. These groups are protected, those groups aren’t, but their forces are so interspersed that striking the one necessarily means striking the other, and if you want to strike a group that is protected in some particular area you only need to say that forces from an unprotected group are also in that area, because nobody can really tell whether they are or not. It’s untenable.

Al-Monitor’s Week in Review post this week has a nice summary of the back and forth between Turkey and Iran, via Russia, over their competing interests in Syria. At this point it seems like Turkey has agreed to give up its support for extremist militias like Ahrar al-Sham (and tacit support for the even more extreme JFS), while Iran has decided to table its concerns over Turkey’s activities in northern Syria, and for now they’re managing to co-exist on that basis. But the potential for an unraveling is very much there.


A few things here, but chief among them is the report that a Palestinian terrorist drove his truck into a crowd of Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem today, killing four people. This would warrant attention anyway, but it especially warrants attention for its similarity to ISIS-inspired car and truck attacks that have taken place in Europe over the last several months. For the most part, ISIS has struggled to penetrate the Palestinian community, but this is obviously an ongoing concern, and this attack certainly seems to have been ISIS inspired (the Israeli government is already saying that the attacker is an ISIS supporter). A Hamas spokesperson praised the attack, which is both condemnable and dumb (any gains that ISIS makes in Palestine are likely to be at Hamas’s expense).

New details about the two corruption investigations swirling around Benjamin Netanyahu were revealed today:

Channel 2 TV reported that police have a copy of a recording made by Ari Harrow, Netanyahu’s former chief of staff, of a 2014 conversation the prime minister held with Arnon Mozes, publisher of the Yediot Ahronot newspaper. It said they discussed trading positive coverage of Netanyahu in exchange for diminishing the impact of a free competing paper, the pro-Netanyahu daily Israel Hayom. The proposal never materialized, media reported.

Additionally, Channel 10 TV reported that Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan supplied the prime minister with a steady flow of expensive cigars, champagne and gourmet meals.

The gifts probe was already known, but little was known about the other investigation other than that the charges were “more serious.” Now we know that the allegation is that Netanyahu’s people were trying to trade favors in return for positive coverage. That is more serious, though if the proposal “never materialized” it may not have reached the level of criminality.

Meanwhile, a senior political officer at the Israeli embassy in the UK, Shai Masot, has been caught on camera saying that he wants to “take down” Britain’s Deputy Foreign Secretary, Alan Duncan, because of Duncan’s support for a Palestinian state. Just in case you thought Russia was the only country that surreptitiously involves itself in the politics of other nations. The Israeli embassy has apologized to the UK government, and Masot should probably be updating his LinkedIn page.


As one of his final acts as UN Secretary-General, the now departed Ban Ki-moon submitted a report to the Security Council about possible Iranian arms embargo violations. An alleged Iranian weapons shipments to the Yemeni rebels was intercepted last year, and in a June speech Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said that all of his group’s funding and weapons came from Iran. Either allegation would represent a violation of Security Council sanctions against Tehran if they can be substantiated. The UNSC is set to discuss the report on January 18, just two days before Donald Trump and his merry band of anti-Iran advisers are set to take over US foreign policy for the next four years.

Saudi Arabia

Pakistani media are reporting that Riyadh’s planned “counter-terrorist” coalition military has a commander: ex-Pakistani general Raheel Sharif.


Speaking of Saudi “counter-terrorism” efforts, starving Yemenis are reportedly eating garbage to try to stay alive. Hopefully the force that General Sharif will be commanding will be capable of doing something other than starving civilians to death.


Along with the 300 US Marines who are being deployed to Helmand province to try to bolster the Afghan government’s fight against the Taliban, NATO announced today that it has sent 200 soldiers to Farah province, in the western part of the country, for a short train-and-assist operation.

Central Asia/China

Al-Jazeera published an interesting piece today on the deteriorating status of Uyghur communities in Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Both countries are home to sizeable communities of Uyghurs who have at one time or another fled Chinese repression in Xinjiang over the past several decades. Soviet policy used to be to welcome Uyghur refugees in, presumably as part of the overall tense Soviet-Sino relationship. But the Chinese government has worked hard to cultivate close ties with the Central Asian republics since the USSR fell, partly in order to undermine the Uyghur communities there, and its working. An attack on the Chinese embassy in Bishkek in August, most likely perpetrated by the Xinjiang-focused and Pakistani-based East Turkestan Islamic Movement, has caused the Kyrgyz government to ramp up its efforts to monitor and control its Uyghur community.

North Korea

The North Korean government says it’s prepared to test an intercontinental ballistic missile “anytime and anywhere” Kim Jong-un orders it. Defense Secretary (for another 12 days, anyway) Ash Carter called a North Korean ICBM test a “serious threat” and said the US is prepared to shoot down any North Korean missile that looks like it’s approaching the territory of the US or its allies. Happy New Year, everybody!


As many as 1000 Tunisians took to the streets of Tunis today in a protest against the eventual return of Tunisians who have traveled to Syria, Iraq, and Libya as foreign fighters. Tunisia has been one of ISIS’s hottest recruiting grounds, so most of its returning fighters are going to be clear terrorist threats. There’s not much the Tunisian government can really do to prevent those fighters from coming back home (revoking citizenship is a major deal under both Tunisian and international law), but it can try to detain and charge them as they return.


A group of Boko Haram fighters attacked an army base in northeastern Nigeria, near the city of Maiduguri, late Saturday. Five Nigerian soldiers were killed along with 15 Boko Haram fighters, according to the Nigerian military.



Nana Akufo-Addo (Wikimedia | Kabil75)

On Saturday, Ghana celebrated the peaceful transfer of power to its new president, Nana Akufo-Addo. Nice. Today, many Ghanaians may be feeling a slightly different feeling:

But the moment of pride was tarnished, though it may not have been immediately obvious to those in attendance. Akufo-Addo had lifted lines in his 30-minute speech word for word from the inaugural addresses of two U.S. presidents.

The first came from George W. Bush’s speech in 2001. “I ask you to be citizens: citizens, not spectators; citizens, not subjects; responsible citizens building your communities and our nation,” he said — or, well, they both said.

And then came a line straight from Bill Clinton’s 1993 speech, substituting Ghanains for Americans: “Though our challenges are fearsome, so are our strengths. Ghanaians have ever been a restless, questing, hopeful people. And we must bring to our task today the vision and will of those who came before us.”

I think plagiarism in many contexts is as close to professionally disqualifying as can be, but a political speech is not one of those contexts. If a scholar, pundit, or journalist plagiarizes, then their whole body of work has to be considered fraudulent on some level. If a politician plagiarizes, well, they need to get a new speechwriter (their current speechwriter, on the other hand, should never work as a speechwriter again). Still, it’s not a great look for any politician, least of all a guy who just got elected and whose constituents, therefore, are stuck with him even if they’re now having second thoughts.


The Pentagon announced plans to “increase the scope and complexity of its European training exercises to deter Russian aggression,” just in time for the inauguration of the new president who got elected apparently thanks in part to direct Russian support. It will be fascinating to watch the dynamic between Donald Trump and his military, and even some of his handpicked advisers, over Russia policy.

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