Conflict Update: January 22 2017

So our guests left a short time ago, whereas I thought they were staying another day for some reason. Leaving on Sunday makes a lot more sense, now that I think about it, but anyway that leaves me free to do a little Bad News Digest tonight.

Iraq

battle_of_mosul_2016-2017

Mosul as of Friday (Wikimedia | Kami888)

OK, the news isn’t all bad. Eastern Mosul is (probably) totally liberated. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi declared it liberated in the middle of last week, but that was technically premature. But it seems fair to say at this point that very little beyond some mop-up work remains for Iraqi forces in the eastern side of the city. What will likely happen now is a pause to allow time to resupply and reinforce Iraqi units and to do as much softening up of ISIS’s defenses in western Mosul as possible via air and artillery. ISIS has already begun preparing its defenses, blowing up a large hotel on the western bank of the Tigris on Friday to prevent the Iraqis from using it as a headquarters.

Western Mosul is more densely packed than eastern Mosul, which limits the amount of air and artillery that can be used without causing excessive death/destruction. There’s a strong argument to be made that this will make liberation western Mosul a harder and longer process than liberating eastern Mosul was, but there are a couple of things working in the Iraqis’ favor. For one thing, ISIS expended a lot of manpower in its futile defense of eastern Mosul and seems to have lost another decent share of its manpower in the fighters who made a dash for the relative safety of Syria. Iraqi forces claim that a large number of ISIS’s commanders in Mosul were killed in the fighting in the east, for example. The other thing the Iraqis have going for them is that they appear to have worked out most of the kinks in terms of coordinating a large-scale offensive among many different units while retaking eastern Mosul. It’s unlikely that the Iraqis will get bogged down in logistical problems again the way they did a few weeks ago, because they seem to have learned from their earlier mistakes.

Donald Trump is already winning friends all over the world, but he’s especially ingratiated himself to the people of Iraq by saying in a speech at the CIA on Saturday that “maybe we’ll have another chance” to take Iraq’s oil–whatever the hell that even means. A lot of Iraqis who are currently on America’s side in the war against ISIS are ready to start fighting America if we come back looking to loot their oil. Iraq of course relies heavily on its oil exports and is already struggling to make ends meet thanks to low oil prices, so they’re liable to be particularly sensitive to any suggestion that their oil might be taken away to repay the United States for destroying their country. This is particularly true at a time when Baghdad is staring at a massive rebuilding effort in Mosul.

Syria

Tomorrow is the start of the peace talks in Astana, and I think it behooves everybody, including me, to think positive thoughts, because if these talks fail–as in “can’t even pretend we made progress” fail–then the chances of an end to the civil war diminish measurably. But this is going to be a tough slog. Rebel spokesmen say they’re in Astana only to try to solidify the current ceasefire, not to come to any decisions about Syria’s future, but the ceasefire is at the point where those same rebels are appealing to Russia to do something to hold it together. There’s a sense, and I think it has some validity, that Russia would like to transition from its role as Bashar al-Assad’s muscle to a more neutral, peacemaking role, which has some Great Power cache attached to it. But it’s not clear that Assad wants to see that happen, and his recent efforts to make new basing concessions to Moscow may be his way of enticing them to continue supporting him no matter what.

I know you’ve all been wondering about one thing related to the peace talks, and the answer is no, the Trump administration is not sending a delegation to the talks, citing the demands of the transition. Having almost no sub-principal level staff in place can make it hard to get any work done. The State Department says that the U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, George Krol, will attend the talks as an “observer” only. I was under the impression that Krol had been fired by Trump, along with every other ambassador, but I see now that Trump only fired non-career ambassadors (i.e., political appointees), not career foreign service officers like Krol.

A potential confrontation is looming east of Aleppo, between Syrian army and pro-Assad militias and Turkey’s Euphrates Shield army, consisting of its forces plus allied rebels. Assad’s forces drove ISIS out of several areas in Aleppo province over the weekend, which brings them close to territory held by the Turkish invasion force. Syria and Turkey have scrupulously avoided each other since Euphrates Shield began and Ankara started trying to make nice with Moscow again–the Turkish government is even saying that it no longer insists that Assad must go in advance of a political transition. But they are obviously not on the same side. So it’s unlikely–but not impossible–that something could break out between these two armies.

Turkey

Late Friday and early Saturday morning the Turkish parliament approved the last of the measures intended to transition Turkey from a parliamentary government to a presidential system where most of the power would reside with President Tayyip Erdoğan. The whole slate of constitutional changes now goes to a national referendum that will probably be held in April.

Lebanon

Here’s some genuine good news: Lebanese police managed to thwart an attempted suicide bombing on Saturday in a crowded coffee shop in downtown Beirut. Officers managed to tackle and subdue the bomber before he could detonate his explosive belt.

Jordan

At least 11 people were killed when a car bomb exploded in a camp for Syrian refugees in Rakban on Saturday. There’s been no claim of responsibility as far as I know.

Israel-Palestine

Benjamin Netanyahu barely waited for Donald Trump to waddle into office before formally giving up the pretense that he’s ever been interested in peaceful coexistence with the Palestinians:

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told senior ministers he is lifting restrictions on settlement building in East Jerusalem, a statement said on Sunday, immediately after the city’s municipal government approved permits for the building of hundreds of new homes in the area.

“There is no longer a need to coordinate construction in the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. We can build where we want and as much as we want,” the statement quoted Netanyahu as saying, adding that he also intended to allow the start of building in the West Bank.

“My vision is to enact sovereignty over all the settlements,” the statement also said, pointing to Netanyahu’s apparent bid to win greater support from settlers and appeal to a right-wing coalition partner.

Trump may be days away from officially moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and thereby legitimizing the full-on ethnic cleansing of the city, and he and Netanyahu are going to meet in Washington in February, probably to discuss their plans to bomb Iran for shits and giggles.

Yemen

Two suspected US drone strikes today reportedly killed three al-Qaeda members in Bayda province. These would be the first drone strikes of the Trump administration, and aren’t we all so proud, what a milestone. Meanwhile, the Egyptian government announced it will indefinitely extend its participation in Saudi Arabia’s effort to cover all of Yemen in a layer of cluster bombs defeat the Yemeni rebels or whatever. If this seems like a hurriedly put-together concession to Riyadh to try to mitigate the Saudis’ anger at being denied ownership of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir…well, it probably is.

Saudi Arabia

Yesterday two suicide bombers detonated their explosives after engaging in a firefight with police in Jeddah.

Egypt

Eight people were killed on Saturday when a home in north Sinai was hit by an artillery shell. There’s been no explanation, nor has there been a claim of responsibility.

Afghanistan

Three Afghan police officers were reportedly killed on Friday when Taliban (allegedly) fighters attacked a checkpoint in the northeastern province of Kapisa. The Taliban, through its own media operation, accused Afghan forces of killing six civilians in the same province.

Yesterday, Pir Saye Ahmed Gailani, the head of the council charged with negotiating an end to the war with the Taliban, died. He was 84. I’d say his death will be a blow to the peace talks, but, uh, what peace talks?

Pakistan

Lashkar-e Jhangvi claimed responsibility for a bombing on Saturday that has killed 25 people so far. The bomb targeted a crowded market in the predominantly Shiʿa town of Parachinar, in the Kurram tribal region.

Indonesia

The problem of fighters returning from Syria and Iraq is only going to become a bigger issue as ISIS and the Syrian rebels keep losing. Indonesian authorities have recently detained 17 people, including children, returning from Syria, on suspicion that they were involved with “radical” groups there.

Libya

Yesterday, representatives from Libya and her neighbors–Egypt, Sudan, Algeria, Chad, Niger, and Tunisia–met in Cairo to call for political dialogue to end the civil war. Good luck with that. That same day, a car bomb went off in downtown Tripoli near the recently reopened Italian embassy. Two bodies were found in the wreckage of the car but there don’t seem to have been any other casualties.

The Gambia

Yahya Jammeh headed off into exile in Guinea yesterday, though he may not stay there. The agreement Jammeh reached with the Economic Community of West African States apparently included some guidelines as to how he will be treated:

“No legislative measures” would be taken that would infringe the “dignity, security, safety and rights” of Jammeh or his family, ECOWAS said in a joint declaration with the African Union and United Nations.

Jammeh could return to The Gambia when he pleased, the statement added, and property “lawfully” belonging to him would not be seized.

However, new President Adama Barrow says that he would like to launch a commission to investigate alleged crimes that Jammeh committed while in office; if that investigation goes anywhere, it’s unlikely that this ECOWAS declaration would have any legal import in the Gambian judicial system. So, for example, Jammeh could still find himself in trouble for this:

Exiled Gambian ruler Yahya Jammeh stole millions of dollars in his final weeks in power, plundering the state coffers and shipping out luxury vehicles by cargo plane, a special adviser for the new president said Sunday…

Underscoring the challenges facing the new administration, [Barrow adviser Mai Ahmad] Fatty confirmed that Jammeh made off with more than $11.4 million during a two-week period alone. That is only what they have discovered so far since Jammeh and his family took an offer of exile after more than 22 years in power and departed late Saturday.

“The Gambia is in financial distress. The coffers are virtually empty. That is a state of fact,” Fatty said. “It has been confirmed by technicians in the ministry of finance and the Central Bank of the Gambia.”

Fatty also confirmed that a Chadian cargo plane had transported luxury goods out of the country on Jammeh’s behalf in his final hours in power, including an unknown number of vehicles.

For today, though the mood in Banjul was apparently good, with people celebrating and welcoming in the ECOWAS military force that had entered the country a couple of days ago with orders to force Jammeh to leave office.

Nigeria

About 20 people are dead and many more missing after government forces cracked down on a pro-Trump demonstration Friday held by a group that wants Trump to support Biafran independence.

Liberland

The fictional micronation of Liberland is hoping that Donald Trump will grant it diplomatic recognition. Liberland was “founded” by Czech national Vit Jedlička in 2015, on a plot of land along the Danube that he says hadn’t been claimed by either Serbia or Croatia. It’s intended to be a libertarian paradise, I guess, but it can’t really get off the ground. It is an interesting legal case because Croatia says the land belongs to Serbia while Serbia says it doesn’t want it, which means…well, who knows? The Croatian government keeps arresting people who try to enter the territory. So far it’s only been able to get “recognition” from a couple of other fictional micronations founded by libertarian yahoos.

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