Conflict update: January 19 2017

The Gambia

Private Citizen Yahya Jammeh, whose presidency still exists only in his own imagination, began his day by finding out that his vice president, Isatou Njie Saidy, had quit. He spent his day hearing about the inauguration of new Gambian President Adama Barrow in the Gambian embassy in Senegal (which is Gambian soil, technically) and learning that the UN Security Council had unanimously adopted a resolution of support for Barrow and for West African efforts to end this crisis–albeit by peaceful means if possible. He ended his day with word that units of the Senegalese army had crossed the border, with Nigerian troops potentially on their way.

The West African forces, organized by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have halted their advance to allow for another attempt to peacefully mediate Jammeh’s ouster, but say they’ll resume tomorrow (come to think of it, it already is tomorrow there) if Jammeh refuses to go. At this point it’s unlikely they’ll even allow Jammeh to remain in the country, since he would obviously be a source of unrest, but it is likely he’ll be given safe passage somewhere if he agrees to go voluntarily.


Mosul as of yesterday (Wikimedia | Kami888)

As you can see from the map, only a few areas in the northern part of east Mosul are still in ISIS’s hands, so the liberation of that half of the city is really in its last stages. Several areas, including the Presidential Palace, were liberated yesterday.

Iraqi commanders are sounding optimistic that their assault on western Mosul will actually be easier than the effort to liberate eastern Mosul has been, because they claim that most of ISIS’s top commanders in the city have been killed in the fighting in the eastern side. There are several reasons to believe otherwise: western Mosul is denser, which makes it harder to move military equipment around and easier for ISIS to interdict that movement; there are more civilians in western Mosul, which will hinder air support and artillery; and there may be more ISIS fighters in western Mosul, particularly when you factor in fighters who have fled from the east. But if it’s true that ISIS is now bereft of its senior leadership within the city, then it may be harder for them to make a coordinated defense in the west.

Reuters had two reports on the ongoing campaign. In one, it looked at the role embedded US advisers are playing, which the Iraqis say has been invaluable. US forces are helping to call in air strikes and make tactical adjustments during the battle, but their biggest contribution to the war effort seems to be the way they’ve managed to get disparate Iraqi units to communicate with one another every night, to assess that day’s fighting and coordinate plans for the next day. The second report looked at the continuing environmental impact of the oil wells that ISIS set on fire in Qayyara in August, before retreating from the area. Iraqis have been able to extinguish some of the fires, but many more are still burning, choking the area with thick smoke, and a related oil spill is now threatening to get into the Tigris River.


The AP’s have a look into the calculus for the remaining Syrian rebel forces as they prepare for next week’s peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. The deck is stacked against the rebels at Astana, but between the loss of Aleppo, Turkey’s pivot toward Moscow, and the Trump election, their position on the ground in Syria is so tenuous right now that many groups really have no other option than to try to talk with the government and with Russia if only to extend the current ceasefire and try to get more humanitarian assistance. Some groups may even be ready to turn on Jabhat Fatah al-Sham if it gets them protection, which would have been unthinkable before they lost Aleppo. There are signs that JFS knows this and that tensions are starting to develop between it and other rebels, even groups still largely friendly to it like Ahrar al-Sham:

According to the opposition-run Qasioun news agency and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, fighters from Fatah al-Sham assaulted Ahrar al-Sham-controlled checkpoints and positions in Idlib’s western countryside and arrested fighters from the Islamist group. The Fatah al-Sham Front, which has been advertising its suicide attacks in parts of Syria despite the cease-fire, also seized a crossing on the Syria-Turkey border, according to the monitoring group.

Ahrar supporters have criticized the group’s decision to boycott the talks, allegedly under pressure from the more powerful Fatah al-Sham.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that ISIS has executed 12 people–four soldiers, four rebels, and four government workers–in Palmyra since retaking that area in December. Meanwhile, in Aleppo today two people were reportedly killed by rebel shelling.

Bashar al-Assad gave an interview with a Japanese TV station today in which he laid out his plans for Kazakhstan:

“I believe that they will focus, in the beginning, and will prioritise, as we see it, reaching a ceasefire,” Assad told Japanese television channel TBS, according to excerpts released by his office.

“This will be to protect people’s lives and allow humanitarian aid to reach various areas in Syria,” he said.

The talks, sponsored by rebel backer Turkey and regime allies Russia and Iran, are set to begin in Astana on Monday.

Moscow and Ankara brokered a truce deal between Assad’s forces and rebel groups in late December, but violence has recently escalated across the country, particularly around the capital.

“At this time, we believe that the conference will take shape as talks between the government and terrorist groups in order to reach a ceasefire and allow these groups to join the reconciliation deals in Syria,” Assad told TBS.

This represents something of a step back for Assad, who previously sounded like he was going to push for a full peace settlement even though literally no other party going to Astana was on the same page. However, Assad did talk about reaching “reconciliation” agreements with various rebel groups at Astana, which in his terminology basically means he’s hoping they’ll surrender. If that’s his intent, then calling all the rebels “terrorist groups” is probably not a productive way to start talks. Just saying.

One group reaping the economic windfall of Assad’s new lease on life is Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The IRGC, which over the past 12 years (at least) as become as much a corporate behemoth as a military force, has seen its subsidiary companies given major contracts by the Syrian government in telecommunications, mining, agriculture, herding, and oil/gas exploration. And when Syria begins rebuilding it’s likely that Guard-affiliated construction firms will be doing a significant chunk of the work. Does this look a lot like some kind of sleazy scheme to repay the IRGC for keeping Assad in power and alive? Yes. Is it some kind of sleazy scheme to repay the IRGC for keeping Assad in power and alive? Also yes. But on the other hand…uh…[mumbles incoherently and trails off]


The Turkish parliament looks set to adopt all of the constitutional reforms sought by President Tayyip Erdoğan by Friday night, which would then send them to a referendum probably in April (the government is trying desperately to prop up the lira until then). The reforms will convert Turkey’s government from a parliamentary system to a presidential system, vastly increasing Erdoğan’s powers. During the debate, one legislator chained herself to the podium to protest against the reforms, which led to a the third brawl on the floor of the Turkish parliament in the last couple of weeks.


The Plasco Building, a 17-story high-rise that is one of the most famous buildings in Tehran, caught fire and collapsed today, killing at least 20 firefighters and possibly many more besides. As tragic as this story is, I wouldn’t normally mention it in this feature because there’s no evidence of foul play, let alone terrorism or something related to international affairs. However, this building collapse may have political implications. Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, the Mayor of Tehran and second place finisher in the 2013 presidential election, was apparently in Qom when the fire broke out, and there’s speculation that he was there to try to clear the deck for another presidential run this year. But Ghalibaf is getting a lot of blowback for this building collapse–for failing to enforce fire codes, for underfunding the fire department, and for chasing his political ambitions while his city burned. So his chances of beating Hassan Rouhani in April, which weren’t great to begin with, are looking worse than ever.

Then again, Rouhani still hasn’t announced that his name will be on the ballot in April, and there’s some reason to think he’s worried about being disqualified by the Guardian Council. I have a hard time imagining the Guardian Council taking a step that provocative, but you can’t completely rule out the possibility.


Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said today that his country needs $10 billion in new foreign investment over the next three years to rebuild its infrastructure and cope with the continuing refugee crisis caused by the civil war in Syria.


Israeli Palestinians launched a nationwide strike today, following a police raid on a Bedouin town in the Negev that resulted in two people being killed. Yacoub Moussa Abu al-Qiyan was shot and killed by Israeli police after they say he struck and killed Israeli police officer Erez Levi with his car. But residents of the Umm al-Hiran village where the incident took place say that police began shooting at Qiyan’s car first, and then he lost control and struck Levi. Demonstrations took place in Umm al-Hiran and in big cities like Haifa, Acre, Nazareth, and Jerusalem.


The Taliban has been trying to assure the United Arab Emirates that it wasn’t behind an attack last week that injured the UAE ambassador to Afghanistan and killed five other Emirati diplomats. Apparently they’re accusing unnamed intelligence operatives of carrying out the attack to wreck the Taliban’s good relations with Abu Dhabi.

Which raises the question of why Abu Dhabi, which purports to be a good American ally, has good relations with the Taliban in the first place, doesn’t it?

North Korea

There’s a fair chance that North Korean will conduct a new ICBM test very soon as a “welcome” for incoming US president Donald Trump. They may be eyeing a test within the first 2-3 months of the Trump administration, or they may be eyeing one in the next few days–satellite imagery has shown activity at one of their missile production facilities, and the South Korean Yonhap news agency says the North Koreans have placed two ICBMs on mobile launchers, though that report has not been confirmed. I’m sure President Trump will display his patented level-headedness about it.


Negotiations from the Filipino government and communist guerrilla rebels are meeting in Rome to try to preserve a fragile ceasefire and hopefully make progress on a peace deal.


In the traditional final overseas airstrike of the Obama administration, ISIS camps outside of Sirte were bombed by US stealth bombers last night to the tune of an estimated 80+ dead ISIS fighters.


Human Rights Watch issued a new report today accusing the Imbonerakure the youth wing of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s National Council for the Defense of Democracy, of killing, torturing, and beating “scores of people” over the past several months. Hundreds of Burundians have been killed and disappeared, and over 325,000 have fled the country, since April 2015, when protests broke out over Nkurunziza’s announcement that he would stand for an unconstitutional third term as president.


I’m going to say this is a bad sign:

A United Nations envoy says diplomats meeting at a Swiss resort to figure out if differences are bridgeable in a deal to reunify ethnically split Cyprus have wrapped up their work a day early.

Envoy Espen Barth Eide said officials completed their task of identifying differences on how post-reunification security should be handled.

mm-hm, that’s true and also this is true too:


When’s the last time you ever saw a complex international negotiation wrap up early because “hey, looks like we got everything done way ahead of schedule”? Yeah, I didn’t think so. More likely, Ankara still isn’t budging on its role as “guarantor” of Turkish Cypriot security, and nobody felt like spinning their wheels for an extra day to no avail.

United States

Meanwhile, in the War Back Home, and with the eminently protestable Donald Trump just hours away from becoming president, our nation’s upstanding Republican public servants are upholding True American Values by…outlawing (or worse) public protest:

In North Dakota, for instance, Republicans introduced a bill last week that would allow motorists to run over and kill any protester obstructing a highway as long as a driver does so accidentally. In Minnesota, a bill introduced by Republicans last week seeks to dramatically stiffen fines for freeway protests and would allow prosecutors to seek a full year of jail time for protesters blocking a highway. Republicans in Washington state have proposed a plan to reclassify as a felony civil disobedience protests that are deemed “economic terrorism.” Republicans in Michigan introduced and then last month shelved an anti-picketing law that would increase penalties against protestors and would make it easier for businesses to sue individual protestors for their actions. And in Iowa a Republican lawmaker has pledged to introduce legislation to crack down on highway protests.

Kudos to North Dakota lawmakers for debating whether or not it should be legal to murder protesters instead of pretending this is all about impeding highway traffic or whatever. The guy pushing that legislation, by the way, Representative Keith Kempenich, looks pretty much exactly how you’re imagining he looks right now.

Illiberal democracy, here we come!

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