Conflict update: January 17 2017


Easily the single worst thing that happened today was the Nigerian air force’s mistaken bombing of a government-run displaced persons camp in Rann, in the northeastern part of the country. Pilots were apparently looking for a Boko Haram force reportedly amassing in the area, and instead wound up bombing a camp full of people who have been horribly victimized by Boko Haram. There’s an extraordinarily cruel joke in there somewhere, or maybe the whole episode is the joke, I don’t know. The New York Times, citing Doctors Without Borders, says at least 52 people were killed and another 200 injured, but earlier casualty estimates (citing government sources) were far higher than that, and with the likelihood that some of the injured will die overnight before they can be evacuated to proper medical facilities (Rann is hard to reach under the best of circumstances), the figure of 52 dead is undoubtedly too low.


Iraqi forces continue to sweep through eastern Mosul, and Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said this evening (Iraqi time, obviously) that some unspecified operation had begun in western Mosul. He may have been talking about the southern shelling of the Mosul Airport, which is on the western side of the Tigris and may be the first Iraqi target on that side of the river. ISIS fighters fleeing to western Mosul are reportedly blowing up buildings and bridges in their wake, and, more troublingly, trying to drag civilians across the river with them to serve as human shields.

I recommend this piece from Al Monitor about Iraqi Christians and their return to towns and homes in Ninewah province that have been devastated in the fighting. Many Iraqi Christians may never return, such has been the degree of destruction. The plight of Iraqi Christians may not seem as desperate as that of, e.g., the Yazidis, who are so few in number that they were genuinely almost driven out of existence when ISIS attacked Sinjar, but at an individual and family level Iraqi Christians have suffered as terribly as anybody else at ISIS’s hands.

In Baghdad, a car bomb detonated in a predominantly Shiʿa neighborhood, killing at least seven people.


Less than a week away from the start of peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, there’s a lot of jockeying for position going on as far as I can tell. First, Tehran voiced its objection to an American presence at the talks. This was to be expected, and is the first of many instances in which Iran and Russia are likely to take very different approaches to the Trump administration. Donald Trump has created a foreign policy team that, to the extent he listens to them, is likely to give him some wildly inconsistent advice considering that most of the principals don’t really agree with each other on much. But the one thing they can all seemingly get behind is the idea that Iran is the Devil. Consequently, Iran isn’t going to have much use for them. If the Obama team were still in place next week, Tehran might be amenable to their participation. Russia, on the other hand, would definitely not want Obama’s America in Astana, but Moscow has every reason to want Trump’s people there since they’re expecting to have very close relations with the new administration. Iran can continue to object to America’s presence, but these Astana talks are really Russia’s and Turkey’s talks, not Iran’s, so it’s not clear that Tehran really has a say when it comes to the guest list no matter how much the Iranian government demonstrates its support.

As for the talks themselves, while I hope to be pleasantly surprised, these things really look like they’re set up to be a disappointment:

Regime and rebel figures will head to Kazakhstan on Monday for negotiations on ending Syria’s brutal war, but are arriving with diametrically opposed approaches to the aims of the talks.

Damascus has insisted it will seek a “comprehensive” political solution to the nearly six-year conflict at the meeting, while rebels say they will focus solely on reinforcing a frail nationwide truce.

The Astana talks, organised by rebel backer Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran, are expected to last less than a week.

Who knows if Damascus is really looking for a “comprehensive” settlement or if it just sees that negotiating position as the easiest way to scuttle the talks–though if Bashar al-Assad genuinely believes, in his own mind, that a couple of days of talks could really bring about a political settlement to this 6 year old civil war, somebody needs to test him for some kind of prion disease. Even the Russians have consistently said that the focus in Astana should be on firming up and expanding the ceasefire, not on a settlement to the conflict. If the two principal combatants can’t agree on what it is they’re supposed to be talking about, how on earth are they going to agree on anything else?

As far as the fight against ISIS goes, the World Food Programme says that it’s been forced to suspend aid drops into Deir Ezzor as a result of the heavy fighting around the city since ISIS launched a new offensive there over the weekend. There are at least 100,000 people in that city who have been heavily dependent on those aid drops for the past ~9 months. Also, US and coalition planes have begun conducting airstrikes in and around al-Bab in support of Turkey’s offensive there. Previously the coalition had simply been conduction aerial reconnaissance for the Turks and their Free Syrian Army proxies, and prior to that the coalition hadn’t been doing anything at all for them.


When I say that Turkey is effectively being run by Alex Jones with a mustache and a different interpretation of the Abrahamic God (OK I’ve never said that before, but imagine I have), this is the kind of thing I’m talking about:

The unstoppable rise of the dollar and the euro against the Turkish currency had the country’s president fuming last week. Speaking Jan. 12 in his palace, Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that economic warfare was behind the Turkish lira’s dramatic depreciation. “Everybody now sees and knows that the attacks Turkey is suffering have an economic dimension as well,” he said. “In terms of aims, there is no difference between a terrorist who has a gun and a bomb in his hands and those who have dollars, euros and interest rates. The aim is to bring Turkey to its knees, cow it into submission and take it away from its goals. They are using the foreign exchange as a weapon.”

The lira hasn’t tanked because Erdoğan has been more interested in setting himself up as Sultan of the New Ottoman Empire than in acting as a responsible caretaker of the Turkish state and economy. That can’t possibly be it. No, it must be economic warfare, and any Turk who holds dollars and/or euros is less an investor than a terrorist, indistinguishable from ISIS. Meanwhile, Erdoğan’s own central bank issued a report in November that said the currency crisis is the direct result of Erdoğan’s government arranging public-private infrastructure deals–with companies owned mostly by big Justice and Development Party allies–that include purchase guarantees that are only repayable in…that’s right, dollars and/or euros. So the main reason why the lira is losing value and Turks are buying up foreign currency is because Erdoğan’s own people arranged deals to siphon off money to their pals build massive new infrastructure projects in those currencies.

The captured suspect in the Reina nightclub attack is an Uzbek national named Abdulkadir Masharipov, an apparent ISIS operative who was trained in Afghanistan.


Jamie McGoldrick, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Yemen, says that Yemen needs $2 billion this year just to adequately care for the ~10 million people hardest hit by the civil war. The United States, which is directly responsible for their suffering, could find that much money if it checked sofa cushions in the Pentagon or opted to, I don’t know, stop paying for incredibly expensive weapons platforms that don’t work. Saudi Arabia, which is even more directly responsible for their suffering, could pay the $2 billion–I realize oil prices ain’t what they used to be, but perhaps Riyadh could take it out of the money it’s spending to fucking cause most of the suffering in the first place. Nonetheless, the UN won’t get the $2 billion it’s asking for this year, just like it didn’t get the $1.8 billion for which it asked last year, because governments have a much easier time spending money to kill people than they do spending money to keep people alive (see also: the current debate over healthcare in the US).

Saudi Arabia

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a news conference on Iranian state TV today that “eight to ten countries” have approached his government with offers to mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and said that Iran would gladly restore ties with Riyadh if the Saudis change their regional policies–which, of course, is exactly the same thing the Saudis say, with the names reversed, if you ask them about restoring ties with Iran.

Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, speaking in Paris, was asked to comment on the increasingly anti-Gulf tone adopted by the two leading conservatives, François Fillon and Marine Le Pen, in France’s presidential race:

“I can’t comment on what’s said during an election campaign, but I know there is a misperception of Saudi Arabia,” Adel al-Jubeir told reporters late on Monday. “People say Saudi Arabia is extremism. Saudi Arabia is intolerance. Saudi Arabia is funding radical institutions and I always say it’s not true.”

Oh, well, if Jubeir says it’s not true, then it must not be true. Saudi Arabia is moderation. Saudi Arabia is tolerance. Saudi Arabia only funds reasonable institutions. Glad we cleared that up.


Pure obscenity:

Israeli soldiers started, on Monday morning, the illegal uprooting of hundreds of olive trees, as part of a plan to uproot hundreds of Palestinian trees to pave a new road for an illegal colony, east of Qalqilia, in the northern part of the occupied West Bank.

The WAFA Palestinian News Agency said the orchards that are being attacked and uprooted by Israel are owned by Palestinians from Nabi Elias, Ezbet at-Tabib and Azzoun town.

It added that the soldiers closed the entire area, after declaring it a closed military zone, and prevented locals, international peace activists and even reporters, from entering it.

Local nonviolent activist Mousa Tabib said the army initiated the uproot and removal of hundreds of olive trees, using a major Israeli construction company.

He added that the attack is just the beginning of the implementation of the Israeli plan to pave a new road that would be used by colonists living in illegal colonies in the district. “Israel is uprooting Roman olive trees that date back thousands of years,” Tabib added, “The Israeli offensive will last for several days and targets more than 3 kilometers of lands.”

The planned 3-kilometer-long colonialist road is planned to be 40-70 meters wide, and will lead to the uprooting of more than 2000 olive trees that were planted at least 500 years ago.

Like the tragedy in Yemen, the United States owns this. We recently agreed to pay $38 billion over the next 10 years to make ourselves culpable in these crimes against humanity.

I let this slip through the cracks, but Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced last week that the PA might “reverse” its recognition of Israel if the US moves its embassy to Jerusalem. It’s an interesting threat, but given that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has absolutely no interest in a good faith peace negotiation, he would be absolutely thrilled if Abbas took this step and gave Netanyahu a way to justify his own radicalism to the rest of the world.

UPDATE: Literally minutes after I hit “post,” this broke:

The Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority (PA) has agreed to form a unity government with rival organisation Hamas, Al Jazeera has learned.

The agreement was reached after a three-day negotiation in the Russian capital Moscow.

The two organisations will form a new National Council, which will include Palestinians in exile, and hold elections.

This could be good for the Palestinians, if it paves the way for desperately needed reforms in Palestinian governance. It could even be good for Israel, if it means Hamas is finally ready to act like a responsible political party. But it’s really good for Netanyahu, who can now disingenuously portray this as a sign of Fatah’s radicalization rather than of Hamas’s de-radicalization. Everything’s coming up Bibi.


The search for the long-missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 has finally been called off, nearly three years after the plane just up and vanished (pieces of wreckage from the plane have been found washed ashore in parts of Africa, so there’s not much mystery about what happened to it). Recent evidence has suggested that searchers have been looking in the wrong place this whole time and that the wreckage is probably further north, but none of the governments involved in the search seems to have much appetite for spending more money on something that may produce absolutely nothing.

North Korea

A North Korean defector and former diplomat named Thae Yong-ho says that the North Korean government is covering up a significant number of recent high-level defections and that many more North Korean “elites” are looking to get out of Dodge. He reportedly described North Korea as “a single gigantic slave society that exists only for the Kim family,” that has totally abandoned even the pretense of Communism.


The British Supreme Court ruled today that Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a former Libyan dissident and current Islamist politician, is allowed to bring a case in British court against former UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and MI6 over accusations that they participated in his kidnapping and rendition to Muammar Gaddafi in 2004. Belhaj was imprisoned and regularly tortured until being released in 2010.

Reuters reported today on Russia’s increasing support for Khalifa Haftar. Much of it will be review to regular readers, but there is the bit about Haftar’s recent visit to the Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov last week as it meandered by Libya on its way home from Syria. Haftar is expecting to have additional support from the US once Donald Trump is in office, at which point he may attempt to escalate his low-level conflict with the Government of National Accord, maybe even by advancing on Tripoli. Haftar’s Libyan National Army said today that it had captured another district in Benghazi from Islamist militias. If the LNA is planning an offensive against Tripoli it will have to pacify Benghazi first.


Here’s another piece on Tunis’s growing problem with returning ISIS fighters, this time from Al Monitor. Tunisian law would allow for stripping returning fighters of their citizenship, but the Tunisian government, like any other government, has international obligations to arrest and prosecute these people, all potential terrorist threats, rather than stripping them of citizenship and leaving them free to go who-knows-where.

The Gambia

Yahya Jammeh has declared a state of emergency in advance of this week’s inauguration, when he’s supposed to leave the presidency to the man who beat him in last month’s election, Adama Barrow. Jammeh is not planning to leave office, and it looks increasingly like the rest of West Africa is going to try to force him to do so. Four ministers resigned from Jammeh’s cabinet in protest today, and the Chief and only Justice of the country’s Supreme Court recused himself from ruling on an injunction Jammeh filed to block the inauguration on some kind of legal grounds–which means that Jammeh’s injunction request probably can’t be heard at all, seeing as how there are no other justices there to hear it.

Ivory Coast

The Ivorian government began paying out promised bonuses to soldiers who have been threatening to mutiny for the past several days, only to have what appears to be another mutiny break out, among soldiers who weren’t party to that deal and thus weren’t going to get any bonuses. Violence has reportedly broken out in Ivory Coast’s official capital, Yamoussoukro, in the country’s largest city and de facto capital, Abidjan, and in a handful of other spots around the country.

Russia and Friends

There are a few short items that all fall under this heading:

  • Lithuania announced plans to build a wall along its border with Kaliningrad, Russia’s Baltic coast exclave to try to impede any (hypothetical, I’m sure) Russian infiltration
  • Ukraine has filed suit against Russia at the UN International Court of Justice, accusing it of intervening militarily in Ukraine and illegally seizing parts (well, a part) of Ukrainian territory
  • Krzysztof Szczerski, the top foreign policy adviser to Polish President Andrzej Duda, wants to increase military cooperation with the United States
  • After meeting with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Moldovan President Igor Dodon said that, if his party wins a majority in the Moldovan parliament in the next elections, he will move to cancel that country’s EU association deal and strengthen ties with Russia instead
  • Italian Foreign Minister Angelino Alfano said that the G7 should consider becoming the G8 again by inviting Russia back to the party


UK Prime Minister Theresa May made her long-awaited (?) Big Brexit Speech today. She said that she plans to implement a “hard Brexit,” which is about 5000% less hot than it sounds. Basically it just means that she’s not going to make any concessions on letting cootie-ridden foreigners into Britain just so as to maintain access to the European Common Market. It’s not clear that May would’ve had much of a choice in this regard, as, despite what appears to be the resolute British view to the contrary, there are actually going to be two parties to the Brexit talks and Britain is not going to simply be able to dictate the terms of its departure. May plans to negotiate a new trade deal with the EU and many other nations besides, and soon she’ll be able to put a pony in the driveway of every British family. Or something like that. I’ll have more to say about Britain’s ongoing delusions of grandeur–and America’s, too–later this week.

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