Conflict update: January 18 2017


It’s the final countdown…

Marking another milestone for a changing planet, scientists reported on Wednesday that the Earth reached its highest temperature on record in 2016, trouncing a record set only a year earlier, which beat one set in 2014. It is the first time in the modern era of global warming data that temperatures have blown past the previous record three years in a row.

The findings come two days before the inauguration of an American president who has called global warming a Chinese plot and vowed to roll back his predecessor’s efforts to cut emissions of heat-trapping gases.

In reality, the Earth is heating up, a point long beyond serious scientific dispute, but one becoming more evident as the records keep falling. Temperatures are heading toward levels that many experts believe will pose a profound threat to both the natural world and to human civilization.

At this point I’ll be happy if I live long enough to dunk James Inhofe’s head in the waters of downtown Washington.


Talib Shaghati, commander of Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism Services, which have been spearheading the Mosul offensive, reported today that his CTS units have recaptured all the areas of eastern Mosul for which they were responsible, which likely means that operations against ISIS on that side of the city have reached the mop-up stage. Iraqi forces now control the eastern entrances to all five bridges spanning the Tigris, and are reportedly bringing in pontoon bridges that will be used in the eventual attack on the western side (where air and artillery strikes have already begun). Before that attack begins there is likely to be a pause in the offensive, to allow Iraqi forces time to refit and to make sure they’ve eliminated the last remnants of ISIS from eastern Mosul.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has apparently ordered the Nineveh Guard, the predominantly Sunni volunteer force that was created in the wake of the 2014 ISIS offensive, to integrate with the Popular Mobilization Units, the predominantly Shiʿa force that was created in the wake of the 2014 ISIS offensive. From a national unification standpoint this is a necessary move, but practically there are big obvious questions about how well these explicitly sectarian forces will be able to coexist. Complicating things is the fact that a former Nineveh Guard leader, Atheel al-Nujaifi, is wanted for arrest by Baghdad for allegedly conducting his own foreign policy with Turkey. Nujaifi is holed up in Iraqi Kurdistan, and while clemency would seem to be necessary to get the guard to participate in this new combined force, clemency may also be tough for the PMU fighters to accept.

As Mosul’s fall becomes more inevitable and ISIS begins to shift from a territory-holding insurgency to a pure terrorist organization, it is working overtime to strike targets in Iraq’s Shiʿa south. It has carried out a series of attacks and attempted attacks against southern Iraqi targets since November, and in recent weeks the city of Najaf has been its prime target. Najaf, the burial place of Ali b. Abi Talib, is considered the third holiest city for Shiʿa Muslims after Mecca and Medina and is the spiritual center for Iraqi Shiʿa. Two new Popular Mobilization Units are being formed to patrol the desert outside Najaf in an effort to protect the city.


Extremist militia and sometime al-Qaeda ally Ahrar al-Sham declared today that it would not be participating in the Astana peace talks on Monday, and…well, you ever throw a party and some acquaintance who you weren’t going to invite anyway, because he kind of annoys all your other guests, made a point of letting you know that he wouldn’t be able to make it? That’s pretty much what Ahrar al-Sham did today.

Speaking of conference invitees, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Meqdad said that Saudi Arabia and Qatar are going to stay grounded won’t be allowed to participate in future talks unless they stop supporting “terrorism,” which in this case means any Syrian rebel group at all. And speaking of non-invitees, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham claimed credit today for a suicide bombing in Damascus last week that killed seven people.

Turkish and Russian pilots teamed up for the first time earlier today to strike ISIS targets in and around al-Bab. We’ve come quite a ways from the days when Turkey was shooting Russian planes out of the sky, haven’t we? Russia’s defense ministry also said it is conducting strikes in support of a Syrian army operation in Palmyra.


Over the course of its activity in Syria, and in an effort to minimize the risk to Iranian soldiers, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been recruiting and training Afghan and Pakistani Shiʿa, particularly refugees who have crossed into Iran, and sending them to Syrian to fight in support of the Assad government. The Middle East Institute’s Ahmad Majidyar examines this program in detail and looks at one of its unintended (probably, though it certainly wasn’t unexpected) side effects: the worse-than-usual treatment of Shiʿa who are still in those two countries:

The consequences are already felt in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The so-called Islamic State and Punjabi sectarian such as Lashkar-e Jhangvi have claimed credit for terrorist attacks against the Shiite communities in both countries and blamed Shiites’ participation in the Syrian conflict. Last year, the Islamic State’s South Asia branch killed and injured hundreds of Shiite Hazars in Kabul, and threatened to carry out more attacks against Shiites “unless they stop going to Syria and stop being slaves of Iran.” Since 2010 in Pakistan, more than 550 sectarian attacks have killed about 2,300 people – mostly Shiites – and the Syrian conflict threatens to further exacerbate sectarian tension in the country.


An “expert” (although, really, how expert could he have been?) Taliban bomb maker reportedly killed himself and his four sons while making explosives in their home. They will be missed?


Speaking of Lashkar-e Jhangvi, mentioned above, its leader, Asif Chotu, is apparently now dead, though there’s some dispute as to exactly how that came about:

Pakistani security forces said on Wednesday they had killed the leader of the banned Sunni Muslim militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) along with three other militants accused of killing hundreds of civilians.

The Counter Terrorism Department of the eastern province of Punjab said its forces had killed Asif Chotoo and his comrades during a shootout in the city of Sheikhupura after a tip-off that the group was planning an attack in nearby Lahore.

However, an intelligence official with knowledge of the operation told Reuters that Chotoo had been in custody since August and was “eliminated” by authorities, something Punjab police spokesman Nayab Haider called “baseless”.

Pakistani authorities are known to sometimes stage “shootouts” when they decide it’s time to execute a prisoner but they don’t want anybody to know that whoever it is was already in custody. Indeed, if you believe Seymour Hersh, the Bin Laden operation was one such staged shootout. If the Pakistanis did have Chotu in custody then they certainly wouldn’t want anybody else to know that, lest they try to talk to him and get an earful about the good old days when Lashkar-e Jhangvi was funded by Pakistani intelligence. Nobody’s supposed to know about that.


Syed Hamid Albar, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation’s envoy to Myanmar, said today that the OIC should appeal to the UN to take action to put a stop to the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people.


Indonesian authorities are questioning a hardline Wahhabi cleric named Habib Rizieq on charges that he insulted Sukarno, the country’s founding father, and questioned the secular state ideology. Rizieq runs a hardline group called the “Islamic Defenders Front,” and if the case against him proceeds it could lead to some public unrest or maybe worse.


Beijing is reportedly gearing up for a trade war with the incoming Trump administration. That should be fun for everybody.

The Gambia

Lots of stuff going on here, and whatever I write now is bound to be out of date pretty quickly.

At last report, West African leaders were meeting in Senegal to decide what to do about Yahya Jammeh, the should-be ex-Gambian President who is refusing to leave office today (local time), when his term officially expires. Earlier today the Gambian parliament voted to extend Jammeh’s term by three months, but the only legislators who participated in the vote are Jammeh partisans and, anyway, nobody outside of Jammeh and his circle seems to care. Also earlier today, the Associated Press reported the “witnesses” observed Senegalese troops heading toward the Gambian border, and a Nigerian warship was heading toward Gambian waters as a “show of force.” Senegal is reportedly circulating a draft resolution at the UN Security Council in support of military action.

Gambian citizens and tourists have spent the last couple of days getting the hell out of there in advance of whatever is about to happen, and supporters of the President-elect, Adama Barrow, say that he will be inaugurated on Gambian soil sometime today.


The death toll from yesterday’s mistaken bombing of a camp for displaced persons in northeastern Nigeria has reached 76, according to the Red Cross.

Ivory Coast

Things seem to be deteriorating here. Earlier today paramilitaries temporarily closed off access to the main port in the city of Abidjan, and after nightfall gunfire was heard in the country’s second-largest port city, San Pedro. In the wake of the agreement to pay bonuses to mutinying soldiers earlier this month, it seems every armed public employee in Ivory Coast is coming around looking for their own bonus.


A suicide attack on a military base in Gao, in northern Mali, has killed at least 50 people. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the attack, which it said was carried out by its Al-Mourabitoun affiliate.


Well, this is awkward. A day after Moldovan President Igor Dodon met with Vladimir Putin and declared that he and, God willing I guess, the Moldovan people were ready to shed their EU association agreement and run into Mother Russia’s loving arms, the country’s prime minister, Pavel Filip, said that Dodon has no authority to make foreign policy and should maybe not shoot his mouth off like that.


Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, talking to Reuters at the World Economic Forum in Davos, said that the United States should lead “a worldwide effort” to counter Russian cyber warfare. Kiev has recently been victimized by a number of cyber attacks, with Moscow the most likely culprit. Poroshenko seems to think this is something Donald Trump would be inclined to undertake, but then again he also says he has “no doubt” that Ukraine will get Crimea back, so maybe he’s just a terminal optimist.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska who was sanctioned by the US Treasury Department yesterday for actions in violation of the Dayton Accords, today called on the Bosnian government to declare US ambassador Maureen Cormack persona non grata. Dodik was sanctioned for actions he took to officially commemorate Bosnian Serb “National Day,” even though that “holiday” was banned by the country’s Constitutional Court as discriminatory.


Peace talks between the government and the country’s second-largest rebel faction, the ELN, have been set to begin on February 7. As part of the deal, the ELN agreed to release Odin Sanchez, a former Colombian congressman whom the group had been holding since last April, a few days before the talks begin.

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