Because there’s so much to cover, after I missed yesterday, I’ve broken today’s update into two parts. This one will cover just the “Greater” Middle Eastern stuff (including North Africa and Central Asia, in other words), and the other will cover everything else.
Stop me if you’ve already heard this: Iraqi forces are “a few hundred meters” away from the Nuri Mosque in Mosul’s Old City, but ISIS resistance, especially via sniper fire, is slowing their advance to a crawl. In addition to the snipers, the Iraqis say ISIS is holding civilian hostages inside the mosque, so care is being taken to try to get them out alive. Civilian casualties in this phase of the operation have already been quite high–3500 or more by one Iraqi estimate–so this is prudent. In addition to the deaths, an estimated 180,000 Iraqis have already fled western Mosul, a number that would exceed the number who fled eastern Mosul during the entire campaign to liberate that half of the city–and western Mosul is still anywhere from 40 percent to around two-thirds (depending on whether you include the airport and surrounding areas in the total) under ISIS control. The number of displaced is greatly exceeding the combined Iraqi-UN capacity to accommodate them, and some people are even returning to the city despite the fighting. The Iraqi government has apparently decided not to send refugees to Iraqi Kurdistan even though there is reportedly capacity there, likely for petty political reasons.
Meanwhile, an ISIS car bombing in Baghdad yesterday killed at least 21 people. It was the latest in a wave of attacks that have been taking place across the country as ISIS fighters have been able to sneak out of Mosul. It’s believed that ISIS fighters have been reforming in areas of Salahuddin province that would be difficult for the government to get at under normal conditions but impossible given that all its resources are focused on Mosul. From there they’ve been able to strike at targets in Salahuddin and Diyala provinces, and of course Baghdad remains their main target. ISIS is also using its base in the town of Hawija, west of Kirkuk, from where it staged a serious attack on Kirkuk in October. The Iraqi government opted to make a beeline for Mosul instead of capturing smaller ISIS strongholds like Hawija first, and it very much remains to be seen whether or not that was the right choice.
The Washington Post reported today on the Yazidis of the Sinjar region, who are now dying and fleeing from fighting between Kurdish factions a mere 2 and a half years after ISIS tried to exterminate their community. The Yazidis welcomed forces aligned with Turkey’s PKK into Sinjar after forces aligned with Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government fled the area in advance of the 2014 ISIS invasion, but with ISIS now gone the KRG is trying to kick the rival PKK out of the area, sometimes violently. Baghdad is apparently happy to have the PKK in Sinjar because it provides some counter to the KRG and to Turkey’s presence in northern Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi was in Washington on Monday, where he said he got enthusiastic support from Trump for combating ISIS via both military and economic means, and where Trump, hilariously, unveiled yet another in his apparently infinite number of contradictory opinions about the Iraq War.
Syrian state media has reported for two days now that Syrian government and allied forces have rebuffed a Tahrir al-Sham/Faylaq al-Rahman (FSA) assault on Damascus, so that’s why it’s kind of surprising that the rebels are still assaulting Damascus. Not that I’m suggesting anything about Syrian state media, I’m sure they’re all committed to accurate reporting. But the thing is, while the rebels almost certainly can’t actually threaten Damascus, and they probably can’t even achieve their immediate aim of defending the remaining rebel enclaves in the Damascus suburbs, what they’re doing is sending a message. By attacking the city and hanging in there, they’re demonstrating that Bashar al-Assad’s position isn’t nearly as strong as he’d like you to believe. Which isn’t surprising; Assad was losing the war before Russia intervened, and his underlying problem–a lack of military manpower–hasn’t gone away so much as it’s been heavily papered over.
This Damascus operation is also going to do nothing but raise Tahrir al-Sham’s (AKA al-Qaeda’s) profile among the rebel factions, which is good for them but probably not good for anybody else. Now they’ve undertaken a new offensive, this one involving a couple of suicide bombings targeting Syrian government positions just outside of the city of Hama. With peace talks scheduled for Geneva starting Thursday, this is a double-edged sword for the rebels, who find themselves overall in better shape on the ground, but more dependent than ever on the one rebel faction that nearly everybody agrees is worse than Assad.
On Monday, the YPG announced that it had reached an agreement with Russia such that Russia would be able to build a new base in northwestern Syria (also called Afrin) in return for Russian training for YPG fighters. Moscow quickly quashed this talk and said that it was actually opening a “reconciliation center” in Afrin. Either way, the presence of Russian soldiers maybe training the YPG in Afrin is going to make Turkey mad while also possibly preventing its cross-border attacks on the YPG there. The YPG apparently has big plans, with a spokesman telling Reuters that it wants to grow from its current ~60,000 man army to something north of 100,000 (it’s not clear how it plans to achieve this increase, but it may start paying its soldiers more money and it’s also been accused of forced conscription). At the same time, Turkey reportedly brought together a group of some 50 Syrian Arab tribes in Şanlıurfa last week to discuss forming an all-Arab army (under Turkish auspices, of course) that would somehow materialize to take on the Raqqa operation and defeat the YPG in northeastern Syria. Turkey has been trying to form something like this for more than a year, at least, to no effect.
Germany’s long (?) national nightmare (?) is over. After Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Ankara that she would ban any further pro-referendum rallies in Turkey unless Turkish leaders knocked it off with the constant Nazi comparisons, the head of the Union of European Turkish Democrats, the rallies’ organizer, said it wouldn’t try to arrange any more rallies in Germany before the vote. But the campaign continues in Turkey. Turkey’s Interior Ministry announced on Monday that it had detained over 2000 people in the last week because
they probably wouldn’t have voted the right way of suspected ties to either the PKK or the organizers of last summer’s coup attempt. They might need to build some more detention facilities, though, because on Tuesday “thousands” of Kurds took to the streets of the city of Diyarbakır to demonstrate against the referendum, against the imprisonment of Kurdish political leaders, and above all against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Better arrest them all just to be safe.
Reuters reported today that “regional and Western sources” say Iran has been “stepping up” its support for Yemeni rebels over the past month (I guess, the article isn’t very clear). An anonymous (everybody in this piece is anonymous, which is only one of its problems) “senior Iranian official” says that the IRGC met last month to figure out ways to “empower” the rebels, because, according to this person, “winning the battle in Yemen will help define the balance of power in the Middle East.” An anonymous “former senior Iranian security official” even uttered the magic word, “Hezbollah,” as in “Iran is trying to turn the Houthis into another Hezbollah.” That there’s no evidence of this apart from some anonymous quotes and constant Saudi assertions doesn’t seem to matter.
There’s virtually no question that the Iranians have been sending weapons and other aid to the Yemeni rebels, but every couple of months we get one of these “OH BOY IRAN BOUT TO DO IT” stories about how they’ve really ratcheted up the aid, and you know what they all have in common? They’ve all pretty much been bullshit, dictated straight out of Riyadh. Despite the suspicion of advanced Iranian weaponry used in any number of recent rebel attacks, the fact remains that there hasn’t been a single rebel attack that couldn’t have been carried out with the weaponry they’ve already taken from Yemeni military stockpiles.
Both the Israeli military and pan-Arab media are saying that the evidence surrounding Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine’s May 2016 death in Syria points to him having been killed by Hezbollah itself. Now a report like this coming from Israel (itself a suspect in Badreddine’s death, though Hezbollah has been curiously quiet about that possibility) and the Saudi-owned (and thus Hezbollah-unfriendly) al-Arabiya should be taken with lots of grains of salt. And the claim, that Badreddine got on Iranian General Qasem Soleimani’s bad side in Syria and Soleimani ordered him whacked, is like something out of the Israeli version of The Sopranos. But stranger things have happened.
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seen above
counting his billions in his head thinking of a funny joke about America, used his Nowruz video message to the nation yesterday to ding President Hassan Rouhani for Iran’s fragile economy and to renew his regular call for Iranians to stick to the “resistance economy” that lies at the core of his I got mine fuck you revolutionary ideology. Khamenei stressed the importance of developing domestic industry and said he feels “bitterness” over the economic plight of poor and middle class Iranians–not enough bitterness to, say, give them some of his reportedly ridiculous fortune, but some bitterness.
The Pakistani government on Monday ordered the reopening of its two main border crossings with Afghanistan. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said his decision was motivated by “humanitarian” concerns, but it was also probably motivated by the fact that cross-border attacks in Pakistan’s tribal region continued despite the closure last month.
Eight EU countries, led by Italy, said Monday that they’re prepared to deliver material and economic aid to Libya to help combat the problem of human trafficking through that country and into the Mediterranean.
Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army is investigating charges of abuse by its soldiers after video surfaced purporting to show several of them mistreating enemy corpses in the aftermath of a recent victory in Benghazi. LNA forces are additionally accused of summarily executing fighters and their families trying to flee the city. If Haftar wants to be taken seriously as the would-be internationally recognized military dictator of Libya, then he might be well advised to take these allegations, and this investigation, very seriously.
Mohamed Salem Ouldsalek, foreign minister of the “Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic,” which claims to be the legitimate government of at least part of Western Sahara and is a member of the African Union, called on Tuesday for the AU to sanction Morocco for failing to attend a Monday AU meeting to discuss the Western Sahara situation. Morocco rejoined the AU earlier this year after having quit it 33 years ago over Western Sahara, and it insists that the AU has nothing to say about Western Sahara and that its annexation/occupation is entirely a UN matter. Morocco sticks to this story mostly because the UN hasn’t done anything about Western Sahara in decades and probably isn’t about to start doing something about it now. Morocco skipping the AU session was an awkward way to handle a very awkward situation.
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