Middle East update: January 29 2018


Airwars has produced its first civilian casualty count of the Afrin conflict:

A new rolling assessment published by Airwars has so far tracked 24 claimed civilian casualty events within Afrin blamed on Turkey – and a further nine events attributed to Kurdish forces.


From the start of operations on January 20th to January 28th, at least 41 to 55 civilian deathshave been assessed by Airwars as likely caused by Turkish-backed forces, along with an estimated 10 to 15 civilian fatalities tied to Kurdish counterfire.


That civilian toll could increase dramatically if the fighting moves into more heavily populated areas where tens of thousands of civilians – many displaced from elsewhere – have taken shelter in Afrin and other Kurdish-held areas of northern Syria.

The fighting continues to center around Bursaya hill, which is ostensibly under Turkish control but is still being heavily contested by the Kurds. There are even reports that the Kurds were able to retake the hill. The thing is, even if the Kurds weren’t able to retake the hill, the fact that it’s taken the professional, modern Turkish military the better part of a week to almost come close to possibly dislodging the YPG militia from a single hill doesn’t bode very well for their plans in northern Syria. The Kurds have gotten some weapons from the US, but they haven’t gotten aircraft and tanks.

Despite repeated Turkish threats to push east into Manbij and beyond, the head of CENTCOM, General Joseph Votel, says the US is not planning to redeploy its forces out of potential harm’s way. I guess the ball is in Ankara’s court on that one. Or maybe Votel is watching what’s happening in Afrin and realizes that at this rate it will take Turkey another couple of decades to get anywhere near Manbij.

While this is all going on, Russia’s Syrian “congress” is kicking off in Sochi–without, of course, any representatives of the main Syrian rebel negotiating body. I don’t want to speculate, but they might be a little miffed at how the Syrian government and Russia have continued to pummel the hell out of Idlib province and Ghouta despite ceasefire deals supposedly covering both areas. Anyway, Moscow insists that the congress is happening and everything will be fine and all the people who attend will have a good time and they will make progress toward a peace deal. OK then. What is true is that the absence of rebel negotiators is unlikely to materially reduce this congress’s chances of bringing the war closer to an end, since those chances were already zero anyway.


Fighting resumed in Aden on Monday between southern separatists and forces loyal to President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. At least four people were killed, making for 16 total over two days of clashes. Reuters says that “President Hadi issued a statement…assuring the population that his government was capable of handling the situation,” which, buddy, if your government was capable of handling anything Yemen wouldn’t be in this situation.

If this fighting goes on much longer there’s going to inevitably be an overall break in the anti-Houthi coalition. The separatists are being fully supported by the United Arab Emirates. The Saudis, meanwhile, are still nominally behind Hadi (he’s living/being detained in Riyadh)–who, by the way, has started referring to the fighting in Aden as a “coup.” As the situation in Aden deteriorates, the Saudis are going to face a decision whether to keep supporting Hadi and break with the UAE or to ditch Hadi and throw in with the separatists. Their problem is that they probably can’t defeat the Houthis with just the separatists as proxies, because they lack widespread support throughout Yemen and they don’t really care about defeating the Houthis in the north.


The Turkish government has arrested 311 people for criticizing the country’s intervention in Afrin online. The interior ministry is also investigating the Turkish Medical Association for calling for an end to the fighting on humanitarian grounds. Its nice to see that Turkish democracy is alive and thriving.


People in Gaza are very worried about US aid cuts to the United Nations Relief Works Agency:

“Dignity is priceless,” read the signs as thousands of employees of the UN agency for Palestinian refugees march through central Gaza City.


They fear Washington’s recent decision to withhold $65m (52.5m euros; £46m) in funds could affect their positions as well as basic services which most of them, as refugees, rely on.


“Unrwa was there every moment for me,” says Najwa Sheikh Ahmed, an information officer with the UN Relief and Works Agency.


“It gave not only food, clothes, education and healthcare but also a job and the opportunity that offers your family.”


Don’t look now, but Abdel Fattah el-Sisi actually won’t be running unopposed in March’s presidential election. He’ll face what is sure to be a vigorous challenge from Mousa Mostafa Mousa, leader of the Ghad party. Egyptians can thus look forward to a spirited debate between Sisi and the head of a party that has already endorsed Sisi and has been campaigning on his behalf. This is definitely a real election and Mousa is not a dummy candidate put forward just to have a second name on the ballot.


The AP reports on the Iranian government’s years-long efforts, in response both to internal dissent and cyberwarfare from the US and Israel, to develop its cyber capabilities and to create a more controllable internet. The result looks a lot like the Chinese internet, but it also looks like what anti-net neutrality types may be bringing to America soon enough:

The idea of Iran setting up its own “halal,” or “permissible,” internet first came in 2011 in the wake of the 2009 protests. It’s evolved into what’s known as the National Information Network.


It is essentially a net neutrality supporter’s nightmare: The network has some 500 government-approved national websites that stream content far faster than those based abroad, which are intentionally slowed, according to a recent report by the Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Service providers offer cheaper packages to customers accessing only the NIN websites. Search results also are gamed within the network, allowing the government to censor what users find.


One of the principal designers of the network is the Iran Telecommunications Co., owned by proxies of the Guard.


It resembles in a way China’s “Great Firewall,” which blocks access to thousands of websites, from Facebook to Twitter to some news outlets. Chinese internet users also find access to websites outside of the country slower.

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