On the plus side, I finally finished that interview I was transcribing and sent it to my editor. On the minus side, that plus a checkup at the doctor occupied most of my day. I’ll try to get back in some regular order tomorrow.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: the Syrian government announced earlier today that it had reached an agreement with rebels in Wadi Barada on letting the government take control of the area so that it could repair and restore the water supply to Damascus. Great news! Until later, when rebels denied the whole thing. Interestingly though, reports from the area do suggest that people are leaving, for some reason.
Peace talks, the ones that have been put in jeopardy in part because of the Wadi Barada fighting, are scheduled to begin January 23 in Astana, Kazakhstan. Turkey, Russia, and Iran will be there, but nobody seems to know who else will be there. Damascus will likely send representatives, but they may not participate in any direct talks with rebel representatives–it’s not even clear that the rebels will send any representatives at this point. Turkey is refusing to consider any Kurdish participation, and in fact is a little miffed that Washington even brought it up. Ankara is hoping that a recent Washington Post report on the Kurdish dominance of the Syrian Democratic Forces has made it clear that the Obama administration is bullshitting everybody when it talks about arming/aiding “only the Arab elements” in the SDF, or at least clear enough that the Trump administration might rethink supporting the SDF altogether.
Meanwhile, Turkey’s operation to take al-Bab from ISIS, despite new promises of stepped-up American involvement, increasingly looks to be going nowhere fast. The Turkish military has had to pour troops into Syria to the point that Turkish soldiers now outnumber Syrian rebel proxies, and the fear at this point is that Ankara, to use the old saw about the Roman Empire, will “make a desert and call it peace.” There are a whole bunch of civilians living in al-Bab who would prefer that the Turks not utterly destroy their city in the process of “liberating” it.
Lieutenant General Talib Shaghati, commander of Iraqi special forces, told the AP yesterday, with caveats, that he thinks Mosul can be liberated within three months. That’s an optimistic take compared to where things were a couple of weeks ago, but it’s backed up by the rapid Iraqi advance through east Mosul since the operation there resumed. Army and elite counter-terror forces are continuing to encircle and prepare to besiege Mosul University, and ISIS has begun bombing bridges over the Tigris itself. Up to this point the bridges have been targeted by coalition airstrikes to prevent ISIS from moving reinforcements from the western side of the city over to the east–now, ISIS is trying to further destroy the bridges so that Iraqi forces can’t rebuild them to use for their eventual operations in the west.
Even though it was mostly destroyed by ISIS some time ago, a bridge over the Khosr River, a Tigris tributary, has become an escape route for Iraqis fleeing west Mosul for government lines in the east. It’s estimated that there could be upwards of 750,000 civilians still in the western side of the city, which means that already overtaxed humanitarian resources are going to be absolutely buried when the offensive moves into that part of the city.
Lebanese President Michel Aoun visited Saudi Arabia today and discussed restoring normal relations between Beirut and the rest of the Arab world. Riyadh scuttled a major arms deal with Lebanon last year because of Lebanon’s friendly relations with Iran, and then several Arab countries took issue with Lebanon’s decision to abstain from an Arab League vote declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization. Aoun, a political Hezbollah ally, refused to budge on his nation’s relationship with Iran but said that it shouldn’t impede its relations with other Arab nations. Aoun is on a tour of the Gulf states and is now in Qatar.
Palestinian citizens in Israel have called a nationwide strike in response to Israeli authorities demolishing 11 Palestinian homes in the city of Qalansawe, in central Israel. The homes were apparently built without a permit, but the problem is that it’s almost impossible for Arab Israelis to get permits to build new houses, so something’s got to give. Either they build without permits or they go homeless.
“Many dozens” of Israeli Defense Forces soldiers have reportedly been catfished by Hamas over the past few months. They were apparently tricked into uploading a “chat” app on their phones that allowed attackers to commandeer the phones, download potentially sensitive information, and use the cameras to take photos of IDF installations.
Fighting has been fierce along the country’s Red Sea coast, as forces affiliated with President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi are trying to clear rebels from the coastline between the Bab el-Mandeb strait and the ports of Mokha and Hudaydah, further north. Hadi and the Saudis say that rebels have been getting illicit weapons shipments from Iran, I guess, via those ports, but I think the bigger issue is that if Hadi’s forces can secure both ports, but especially the larger and more northerly Hudaydah, they may be able to start landing forces very close to Sanaa. That would be a potential turning point.
Here’s an interesting bit of news that I don’t know quite how to process. Kazakh president/dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev, who has been running Kazakhstan as a virtual dictator since shortly before the collapse of the USSR, announced today that he’s forming a “working group” to suggest reforms that would divide the near-absolute power that currently rests with him among the country’s executive, legislative, and judicial institutions. Obviously these changes wouldn’t kick in until Nazarbayev shuffles off into the hereafter, but this would still be a very big deal especially in the largest country in dictator-rich Central Asia.
America’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, whose job is to make sure that U.S. reconstruction aid to Afghanistan is going to good use and not being tossed in a hole, issued a report today that says that U.S. reconstruction aid to Afghanistan is effectively being tossed in a hole:
“The Afghan national defense and security force has not yet been capable of securing all of Afghanistan and has lost territory to the insurgency,” SIGAR said.
Last August, the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, or USFOR-A, said only 63.4 percent of the country’s territory was under government control — compared to the 72 percent that the military said was controlled by Kabul in November 2015.
SIGAR also noted at least seven other areas of concern in Afghanistan, including rampant corruption and drug trafficking.
The report noted that Afghan forces have improved at protecting big cities and are capable of responding to Taliban attacks and fairly quickly driving them out of areas they seize. Which would be fabulous if this were 2005. Hell, 2010 even. But it’s 2017, and after $64 billion in American aid the Afghan army has gone from treading water to losing.
Perhaps to punctuate the SIGAR report, the Taliban released video today of two University of Kabul teachers–one American and one Australian–who were kidnapped back in August.
In more positive news, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif visited the newly restored Katasraj Hindu temple complex in Punjab today and spoke out against Muslim extremists who preach intolerance of other faiths:
“In my personal view, we are all are equal – Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Christians – and people belonging to other religions; we are all one,” Sharif told Reuters after a Hindu ritual was performed at the temples, located in the village of Katas some 110 km (70 miles) south of the capital Islamabad.
At the ceremony, attended by senior Christian, Sikh and Hindu leaders, Sharif chastised hardline Muslim scholars who use “strange interpretations” of Islam to preach hate against other religions.
“I believe this is not lawful. No one should try to teach this sort of lesson, nor should anyone heed such lessons,” Sharif said.
Sharif is looking to make himself out a tolerant liberal leading up to parliamentary elections next year. One of the criticisms of Sharif in his time as PM is that he’s failed to stand up to extremist preachers and groups, and saying Nice Things to Hindus will help his image with liberal urban Punjabi voters in general, not just with Hindus (who are such a small percentage of Pakistan’s population that they can’t have much electoral impact).
Over 3000 people have been displaced just this week due to fighting between the Myanmar government and separatist rebels in northern Kachin state, near the Myanmar-China border.
China’s aircraft carrier and its accompanying battle group have now left the Taiwan Strait, and the world is still here as far as I know, so that’s good. Taiwan had scrambled its navy and air force to monitor the carrier group’s movements, but that’s as far as things escalated.
I highly recommend this War Is Boring piece on the military forces that are escalating things in Libya toward a resumption of full-on civil war between the Government of National Accord and the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar. On the one hand, the Benghazi Defense Brigade has been trying to provoke the LNA by attacking oil facilities under its control, which led by late last month to a confrontation between the Third Force, a unit based in Misrata that, per WIB, is the strongest single military unit in the country, and the LNA’s 12th Infantry Brigade. The Third Force is, for now at least, allied with the GNA, and while it’s strong it was severely weakened in the fight against ISIS in Sirte. The LNA 12th Brigade is a semi-autonomous unit that looks like it may want to challenge the Third Force in Fezzan, in southwestern Libya, where the Third Force controls several oil fields. If these two forces go to war with one another, they will likely pull the LNA and GNA, which are already on the verge of war with one another, along with them.
Yahya Jammeh is springing what I have to believe is his final post-election argument as to why he should stay in office even though he, you know, lost. He’s insisting that the election results must be verified by the Gambian Supreme Court, which effectively doesn’t exist and won’t exist until May, when new justices appointed by Jammeh will be available. It all seems very legal and reasonable, but to be fair, until the court can hear the case and determine a victor Jammeh doesn’t really have any more right to be president than Adama Barrow, who won the election, does. The only appropriate thing would be for neither man to be president and for an impartial third party to run the country until the court can rule. Pending salary requirements, I am willing to offer my own services.
That might not go over well with Jammeh, who’s very unhappy that all these foreigners keep insisting that he step aside because he, to reiterate, lost the fucking election. He’s named a mediator–the chief justice of the non-existent Supreme Court, who owes his job to Jammeh–to help everybody calm down and reach a reasonable accord, though what he’s expecting to “mediate” here is not immediately clear to me.
Five Malian soldiers were killed today, and three more wounded, by a roadside bomb in central Mali. There are so many al-Qaeda affiliates crisscrossing Mali that it’s hard to know which one is behind any particular attack, and really there may not be any point to trying to parse them all like that anyway. But the Macina Liberation Front in particular is known to operation in central Mali–Macina, the name for the Inner Niger Delta, is located in that part of the country.
The South Sudanese government has decided to reject a UN deployment of a 4000 man reaction force that would be intended to respond forcefully to reports of violence related to the country’s three-plus year long civil war. They had originally accepted the deployment in November under the threat of a UN arms embargo, but then the UN Security Council flubbed that all up, so now it seems they’re rediscovering an interest in national sovereignty.
Reunification talks in Geneva appear to be going pretty well, or at least well enough that foreign ministers from Greece, Turkey, and the UK are going to join the talks tomorrow (well, today local time). That was only going to happen if the initial talks between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot factions made enough progress to justify it. The two sides have reportedly exchanged their proposed maps for how the zones of control in a reunified Cyprus might look, which is a pretty big step.
Several refugee aid agencies are warning that migrants who have been stuck in the Balkans in makeshift migrant camps are in danger due to recent low temperatures and heavy snowfalls in the region. The West is obviously far better at creating refugees than it is at alleviating their suffering, but at the very least more money needs to be put into building camps with real shelter for these people, before more of them die needlessly.
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