Conflict update: January 12 2017


Something fairly significant appears to be happening at the Mezzah military airport, west of Damascus. A short time ago (Friday morning local time) reports began coming out via Twitter, and then via the news services, that the airport had been hit by an Israeli airstrike, but now the story, per the Syrian government, seems to be that it was an Israeli rocket attack. It’s not clear why the Israelis attacked the airport–heck, at this early point it’s not entirely clear that it was the Israelis, although that seems to be the case–and there also haven’t yet been any casualty reports. Israel opposes Assad because of Assad’s support for Hezbollah, and the Mezzah base has been used by Assad’s forces to launch attacks against rebels in the Damascus suburbs, so the motive may be that simple. But it’s also possible that the IDF had information about a weapons transfer to Hezbollah–in the past the IDF has justified strikes in Syria by claiming it was preventing Iranian weapons shipments to Hezbollah.

The UN’s Syria envoy, Staffan de Mistura, told reporters in Geneva today that the Russian-Turkish ceasefire is “largely holding,” which I guess is true if you ignore all the places–Wadi Barada, Douma, Idlib–where it’s clearly not holding. Or we could ask the rebels if they think it’s holding. Earlier today a suicide attack killed eight people in the Damascus neighborhood of Kafr Susa, which is known to be near several Syrian military and intelligence buildings, and that doesn’t seem very ceasefire-y to me.

Still, it seems like peace talks in Kazakhstan are going to proceed whether or not anybody from Syria actually attends, if only so that Moscow and Ankara can save face. But those talks are starting to get some pushback. French President François Hollande said in a speech today that, while these Kazakhstan talks are nice, the real negotiations– you know, the ones that haven’t accomplished anything at all–have to resume in Geneva ASAP. Meanwhile, Russia continues to pare down its forces in Syria, in this case rotating out six bombers but partially replacing them with four ground-attack aircraft.

Finally, the US announced new sanctions today against 18 Syrian government officials accused of participation in chemical weapons attacks during the course of the war, based on a report issued by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in October. A draft resolution has been circulating at the UN Security Council that would bar helicopter sales to Syria over the report, but Russia would surely veto that and Britain and France have also, somewhat surprisingly, been pushing back against it, so this is the alternative. Syrian activists are presenting evidence of alleged Russian and Iranian war crimes to the UN, but any move to punish either country over those allegations will be quashed by the same Russian veto that hangs over the chemical weapons resolution. The activists are calling for a special tribunal that would bypass the Security Council, but the chances of something like that being formed are very remote.


Iraqi forces made a couple of major breakthroughs in east Mosul today. Iraqi army and counter-terror forces finally linked up in the north as they continue preparing for a joint attack on Mosul University, and forces in the southeast also made significant gains. Iraqi authorities are saying that 85 percent of the eastern half of the city is now under their control, and while I suspect they’ve been consistently inflating that number for most of this campaign, the actual percentage matters less than the fact that they are clearly making progress. There are even signs of normal life starting to return to parts of the city that have already been liberated.

Iraq Body Count produced its 2016 report today, finding that 16,361 Iraqi civilians were killed last year. That number is down slightly from the 17,578 who were killed last year and a bit more from the 20,218 who were killed in 2014, but it’s still up drastically from the 9852 killed in 2013 and the 4622 killed in 2012. It makes 2016 the sixth-deadliest year for Iraqi civilians since George W. Bush and company did their thing in 2003.


Turkish legislators are engaging in fistfights in parliament–always the sign of a healthy democracy–over plans to hold a referendum on changing Turkey’s constitution to shift its government from a parliamentary system to a presidential system in which the levers of power would mostly be controlled by President Tayyip Erdoğan. Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party needs 330 votes in parliament–it has 316 legislators and shouldn’t have much trouble finding the other 14 votes from within the hard right Nationalist Movement Party–to send the changes to a referendum. AKP members are saying that if they can’t get the 330 votes they need, they will likely call for early elections.


A whole bunch of diplomats from all around the world are gathering in Paris on Sunday to talk about how they can most effectively continue to fail to achieve a peaceful settlement to the Israel-Palestine dispute, and by the way he’s carrying on you’d think they were all gathering to shoot Benjamin Netanyahu’s dog or something:

“It’s a rigged conference, rigged by the Palestinians with French auspices to adopt additional anti-Israel stances,” Benjamin Netanyahu said during a meeting with Norway’s foreign minister. “This pushes peace backwards. It’s not going to obligate us. It’s a relic of the past.”

Oh yes, it’s rigged, it’s all rigged the whole world is rigged against Israel and all Israel is doing is ethnically cleansing conquered territory. Note that by “the past,” Netanyahu means “a time when people were naive enough to think that Israel would eventually trade land for peace.” Meanwhile, even Hollande, the conference host, is saying that it won’t produce anything substantive, so one wonders if maybe Netanyahu should try keeping his powder dry and pretend like he’s actually interested in peace for a change.

Meanwhile, if anybody cares (and I think it’s pretty firmly established by now that they don’t), people trapped in the Gaza open-air detention facility are getting by on about four hours of electricity a day at a time of year when I’m sure most of them would really like to be running heaters at night so as to not freeze. The Palestinian Authority has stopped paying Israel’s power company, so Hamas is blaming the PA, people in Gaza are blaming Hamas, and nobody is actually doing anything to fix the problem. There might not be a problem were it not for the fact that Gaza’s own power plant was damaged in a humanitarian Israeli war in 2006 and nobody’s bothered to repair it since.


I have to confess, I haven’t watched much of this week’s cavalcade of confirmation hearings. These things are theater for the most part, and anything that’s not theater you can learn about after the fact when everybody rushes to report on it. For example, in Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing yesterday we got a glimpse into the Trump administration’s handling of human rights issues, and, well, it’s about what you’d expect:

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., asked Tillerson during his confirmation hearing: “Saudi Arabia has been utilizing cluster munitions in Yemen. Much of the world has said these are terrible weapons to use, because they have a range of fuses and they can often go off months or years after they’ve been laid down. These are the cluster bombs, you’re familiar with them. They’ve also been targeting civilians. How should the U.S. respond to those actions?”

Tillerson replied: “Well I would hope that we could work with Saudi Arabia perhaps by providing them better targeting intelligence, better targeting capability to avoid mistakenly identifying targets where civilians are hit, impacted, so that’s an area where I would hope that cooperation with them could minimize this type of collateral damage.”

“How about with regard to the use of cluster munitions?” the senator asked.

“Well I’d have to examine what our past policy has been. I don’t want to get out ahead, if we’ve made commitments in this area, I don’t want to get out ahead of anyone on that,” Tillerson concluded.

The US already provides targeting information to the Saudis, and they’ve been triple-tapping funeral processions anyway. As that Intercept piece notes, there’s actually evidence that the Saudis have been using a US “do not strike” list, including a number of important civilian sites, as a list of targets. Any Yemenis who aren’t being directly targeted by Saudi munitions are being slowly starved to death by a Saudi blockade.

The Obama administration, which has spent more time bombing Arab countries over the past eight years that it’s spent, for example, worrying about downballot races in midterm elections, won’t send cluster bombs to the Saudis anymore, though they also won’t openly say so for fear of hurting the cluster bombs’ feelings. An administration that really gave a shit about civilian lives would simply stop backing the Saudis in Yemen altogether and instead condemn their multiple war crimes, but this administration seems like a fair bet to go in the opposite direction.

United Arab Emirates

Sheikh Khalifa b. Zayed Al Nahyan, UAE president and ruler of Abu Dhabi, returned home today from a mysterious week-long “private visit” abroad. No big deal, I guess, except that Sheikh Khalifa is 68 and had a stroke in 2014, so he’s not exactly the picture of health. “Private visits” of this sort often wind up being European hospital visits. The UAE is pretty stable, all things considered, and the succession shouldn’t be an issue. Still, something to watch.


The US military has investigated its actions during a November 3 engagement in the village of Boz, near Kunduz, and found that its airstrikes killed 33 civilians. Of course, it also cleared itself by saying that the civilians were hit because Taliban fighters had intermingled with them and were fighting US and Afghan ground forces. Survivors of the airstrikes, however, seem to tell a much different story:

“We don’t even know if the Taliban were actually killed in this attack. All we saw were dead bodies of the innocent people,” Ruhani, a resident of Boz village, told Al Jazeera.

“We saw dead bodies of children as young as three years old. What was their fault?”

Another resident who lost members of his family in the fight said the attack “only killed innocent people” and the houses were targeted based on “speculation”.


Things aren’t looking great for the Government of National Accord, which looks like it’s on the brink of a renewed civil war with the Libyan National Army of Khalifa Haftar. But before it can even think about engaging Haftar, the GNA might want to get a firmer grip on Tripoli, so stuff like this stops happening:

Khalifa Ghwell, head of the self-declared government that ran Tripoli until early last year, said in a televised speech that his forces had recaptured some “state institutions” including the ministry of defense, and that he had ordered staff there back to work. A statement by supporters of Ghwell said the labour and martyrs’ ministries were also under their control.

A statement on a GNA Facebook page said that “at a time when the (GNA) is working for agreement between the parties and a solution to everyday problems, armed groups loyal to … Ghwell tried to storm a number of state headquarters in the capital, Tripoli”. The groups used the “threat of force” on entering the labour ministry, a second statement said.

Yeah, when you’re reduced to griping about the attempted coup on Facebook, you’re probably in bad shape. The GNA claims that Ghawil (a better transliteration of his name in my opinion), the would-be prime minister of the virtually defunct General National Congress, failed in his efforts and that things had returned to normal in Tripoli by the end of the day. But he and his forces are going to keep making these attempts unless and until the GNA finally establishes itself.


Police tear gassed a crowd of protesters today in the southern town of Ben Guerdane. The protesters, mostly young men, were frustrated with the slow progress of economic development outside of Tunisia’s big cities.

The Gambia

The lower house of Nigeria’s parliament voted today to offer asylum to Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, which would obviously entail him acknowledging his defeat in last month’s elections and stepping down. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari has taken the lead among West African heads of state in trying to talk Jammeh out of resisting his defeat, so it’s not surprising to see Nigeria offer him an escape hatch like this.


Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs, reported to the Security Council today that an estimated 10.7 million people in Nigeria, Niger, Chad, and Cameroon are now in desperate need of food and resettlement thanks to Boko Haram and the war it’s been waging in the region.


This week’s talks in Geneva didn’t reunify Cyprus, but they were apparently successful enough that a new round of talks has been scheduled for next week in what UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres seemed to suggest could be a final push toward completion. With most complicated international negotiations like this the potential for a breakdown in talks only increases the closer the parties get to a deal, so there’s still a lot of work to be done. But it seems like the talks so far have actually exceeded expectations, and when was the last time you heard something like that in relation to international diplomacy?

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