Aleppo update: November 28


The situation in Aleppo as of earlier today, red areas in government hands, green in rebel hands (Wikimedia | Kami888)

If you compare that map there to the one we saw yesterday, which was current as of Saturday, you can see how quickly the Syrian army is gobbling up eastern Aleppo. At least a third and perhaps as much as 40% of the territory the rebels controlled just a few days ago is now in government hands. As you might expect from forces who have been deprived of food and medical care while facing daily air bombardments, the rebels left in the city have largely collapsed as the Syrian army rolls through in force. Aleppo’s fall will be a significant, though not immediately life-threatening, blow to the rebels; it will not, as Charles Lister says in that CBS piece, be an “existential blow to the moderate opposition,” which existentially has long since ceased to exist as a separate pole in Syria’s civil war–if it ever did exist, the term “moderate rebel” being something of an oxymoron. Even if we allow that Aleppo has remained a bastion of moderate rebels–which is questionable, considering the degree to which much of the resistance in recent weeks has involved “moderates” fighting alongside extremists from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, and Ahrar al-Sham–if besieged eastern Aleppo was all the moderate rebels really had left, then they didn’t have very much.

“Thousands” of people have reportedly fled the city amid the fighting, but tens of thousands were reportedly in the city when the fighting began, and we won’t have any idea as to the scale of what is likely to be a massacre until after the Syrian army completes its work and the dust settles. Given the nature of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, we may never really know the scale of the massacre, but we’ll be able to hazard some guesses. And while humanity won’t miss any extremist al-Qaeda-types who may not make it out alive, it will miss the thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of non-Islamist, non-extremist Syrian men, women, and children who have been or are about to be slaughtered by the army of a man who pretends to be their rightful head of state, for no reason other than that they picked the wrong place to live. I don’t think you have to be in the tank for either side in this epically shitty war to say that it is a goddamn atrocity what has happened to the Syrian people for the past five plus years, and that eastern Aleppo may be the worst episode yet.

Which is not to say that the blood of the people who are dying in Aleppo right now is entirely on Assad’s hands. There have been plenty of reports, and not just from Syrian state media, over the past couple of weeks suggesting that rebels, including those moderate rebel types so beloved here in DC, have been preventing civilians from evacuating the city because they didn’t want to lose their human shields. The thing is, though, keeping human shields only works when you’re fighting an opponent that cares in any way about minimizing the loss of life. Of all the things you could say about Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, “they cared about protecting people’s lives” is not among them.

And yes, the international community, including and most especially the United States, has failed, unless you count repeatedly “tut tutting” Assad as a victory. Continue reading

Mosul/Aleppo/Yemen update, October 23


Kurdish forces attacked Bashiqa, another village a short distance east of Mosul. The Kurds claim that they “completely control” Bashiqa now, but it’s not entirely clear what they mean by that and it’s very likely that some ISIS fighters still remain in the town. Nevertheless, it’s being reported that the Peshmerga have advanced to within 5 miles of Mosul from the east. Joining the Kurds in the operation to capture Bashiqa are aircraft from the anti-ISIS coalition and…wait for it…Turkish forces, who have been based nearby for months now, training Turkmen fighters to participate in the Mosul operation, whenever it came to pass. These are the same Turkish forces that Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi just said would not be participating in the Mosul offensive, but their support was apparently requested by the Kurds, and Abadi controls the Kurds about as much as I control the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is to say not at all.

Elsewhere, ISIS’s diversionary assault on Kirkuk continued for a third day, and the real concern now seems to be that the remaining ISIS fighters have holed up and begun attempting suicide attacks around the city. ISIS also launched a second diversionary attack, this one in the far western Iraqi town of Rutbah. ISIS controlled Rutbah from mid-2014 through this past May, and it seems that they were able to seize a substantial portion of the town today. Rutbah isn’t large, only about 22,000 people, but as you can see on the map below it sits on the long highway connecting Baghdad to the Jordanian capital, Amman, so it’s strategically valuable:


(Google Maps)

In your daily humanitarian update, there are reports that Iraqi forces are moving so quickly from town to town that they’re leaving places unsecured. ISIS personnel have been able to reenter these unsecured towns and execute civilians who may have been too quick to voice their happiness at being liberated. This is a potentially very dangerous phenomenon, as the Iraqi government seems to be in a hurry not only to liberate these towns but to move former residents back in. People quickly relocating back into their former homes may find themselves in danger from ISIS all over again unless the Iraqis do a better job of securing the territory they’re capturing.

Finally, I know the search for a decent map of what’s happening around Mosul continues, so here’s one attempt from Al Jazeera. It’s basic, but gives you an idea of who controls what, though it will certainly be out of date by tomorrow afternoon.

Aleppo and Yemen are up next.

Continue reading

Mosul and Aleppo update, 10/20

Since the situations in both Mosul and Aleppo are developing rapidly and I don’t feel like trying to come up with pithy titles for each frequent update, let’s just go with something bland and basic, OK?

After a day of rest, either to consolidate gains or because the Kurds and the Iraqi army were already mad at each other, the Mosul operation seems to have picked up again:

Iraqi-led forces engaged Thursday in the most intense fighting yet in the battle to liberate the city of Mosul from two years of brutal ISIS rule, on day four of an offensive that’s been met with fierce resistance from ISIS fighters.

But with the clashes have come sweeping gains — the coalition has now recaptured at least 100 square kilometers of territory, a CNN analysis of the battlefield shows.

Iraqi Maj. Gen. Maan al-Saadi said 200 ISIS fighters were killed as Iraqi forces took the Christian town of Bartella from ISIS militants, the latest territorial win for a coalition of around 100,000 people quickly closing in on Mosul.

I’m sure people are interested in seeing maps, but things are moving so fast it’s hard to get a good snapshot. Still, this isn’t bad:

Whatever concerns about the Iraqi army’s role in the operation seem also to have been allayed, as Iraqi Special Forces took part in the operation for the first time in seizing the village of Bartella, only ~8 miles east of Mosul. Those forces then joined with the Kurds in a push toward Bashiqa, a short distance to the north. The approach to Bashiqa will, of course, bring these forces into contact with the fighters being trained near Bashiqa by Turkey, and their Turkish trainers. Given the rhetoric bouncing between Ankara and Baghdad over the presence of those Turkish forces in Iraq, it’s very unclear how this encounter is going to go.


Bartella’s proximity to Mosul (Google Maps)

In Aleppo, the promised “humanitarian ceasefire” does seem to have been implemented, and Russia even announced a 24 hour extension, ostensibly to allow more time for evacuating sick and wounded people. However, this is a humanitarian pause only insofar as people are being allowed to leave the city and go either into government-held territory or to rebel-held Idlib–it will not, at least at this point, be accompanied by any aid convoys in to eastern Aleppo. Some people do seem to be availing themselves of the chance to get out of the city, but many more seem to be defiantly staying put (or, possibly, are being held there by the rebels–I’ve seen reports on Twitter saying that rebels have been shelling the corridors that were opened for people to leave).

I argued yesterday that there’s a slim chance this ceasefire could be a good thing if it allows time for efforts to disentangle extremists in the city from everybody else. But it seems far more likely that the aim here is to create the conditions under which Russia and Syria can say “hey, you had your chance” before they resume slaughtering however many people remain in Aleppo once the corridors are closed up again. If the aim is to identify and isolate the hardcore extremists among the ranks of the rebel fighters then it’s going to take a long-term, internationally-monitored cessation of hostilities to do it. A ~30 hour, unilaterally imposed ceasefire won’t come close to cutting it, but it could be a bit of a fig leaf for Moscow and Damascus to put on before the intense bombing resumes again.


Vladimir Putin Says A Thing

Russia and Syria are supposedly planning to stop annihilating Aleppo for all of 8 hours later today (it’s 3:30 AM in Damascus right now), to give people trapped there a chance to get out. And, hey, we’ll see. But Angela Merkel, Vladimir Putin, François Hollande, and Petro Poroshenko got together in Berlin today to talk about Ukraine and Syria. The Ukraine part of the talks looks like it made some limited progress–it was agreed that the OSCE should be deployed to oversee elections in eastern Ukraine, and the four countries agreed to work on a “road map” to some kind of settlement there–and on Syria it seems like Putin may have been in a conciliatory mood:

Vladimir Putin says Russia is willing to halt its airstrikes on the Syrian city of Aleppo indefinitely.

Russia had promised a pause of several hours in attacks on the city by Syrian forces under the cover of Russian air power in order to allow suffering civilians to leave and to give rebels safe passage.

But Putin said after a meeting with the leaders of France and Germany “We informed them of our intention to continue, as much as possible, considering the situation on Syrian territory, a pause in the air strikes. We are ready to do this for as long as there are no clashes with rebel formations entrenched in Aleppo.”

A little later today, Reuters reported this:

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad have discussed a “humanitarian pause” in the Syrian city of Aleppo, Russian news agencies quoted a Kremlin spokesman as saying on Wednesday.

There’s no reason to expect this to lead anywhere. There’s not even much reason to expect that Russia and Assad will adhere to the short ceasefire they’ve already scheduled today–it’s too easy to drum up an excuse as to why the bombings must continue. But Russia has made a lot of noise lately about “separating moderate rebels from extremists”–indeed, that’s pretty much the only thing Russia and the US are talking about nowadays. That’s a difficult task under favorable conditions–first you need to figure out who’s still “moderate” (“Question 1: has anybody in your group beheaded any 10 year olds in the last 12 months?”), then you need to see if they’re willing to abandon their extremist allies, AKA the only allies they’ve really had throughout the war–but it will be impossible to carry out while bombs are still dropping. And, you know, that’s probably the point–Russia and Assad make a nearly impossible demand, create conditions that make it completely impossible, and then claim their brutality is justified. But on the off chance that Moscow means what it says, or that it would like the rest of the world to think it means what it says, then a longer pause in the bombing campaign wouldn’t be a bad idea.

While I have you here to talk about Syria, I want to commend a piece by Bassam Haddad in The Nation yesterday for articulating a “pox on both their houses” position that I found very compelling. Haddad wants to attack both poles of the debate over Syria, the “Bashar is bravely resisting American colonialism” pole and the “this revolution is pure and good and the rebels have done no wrong” pole. And yes, those are both strawmen, but the longer the argument goes on the more people seem to be adopting maximalist views of the conflict. Haddad offers a much-needed corrective to both, in my opinion: Continue reading

The messenger matters

A few days ago CATO’s Emma Ashford wrote a piece for Foreign Policy called “Gary Johnson’s ‘Aleppo Moments’ Don’t Undo a Smart, Libertarian Foreign-Policy Platform.” And, I mean, of course they do, but I appreciate the argument she’s trying to make here:

The big tragedy here is that the foreign-policy approach offered by the Johnson-Weld campaign is not only a compelling alternative to the current orthodoxy, but is increasingly popular among Americans. A more restrained approach to foreign policy would see the United States involved in fewer unnecessary conflicts around the world, and a much stronger emphasis on diplomacy and other nonmilitary solutions to global problems. In contrast to Clinton’s liberal interventionist approach, it would avoid getting bogged down in civil wars like Libya and Syria. In contrast to Trump’s curiously aggressive isolationism, a restrained foreign policy sees trade as a positive, security-enhancing factor.

Polling throughout the election campaign suggests that many of these ideas resonate with voters. In one recent Chicago Council survey, only 27 percent of Americans believed that the United States does too little around the world, while 41 percent of respondents think the United States does too much. More than half of respondents think that other countries should solve their own problems rather than relying on the United States.


“I may not know where Jamaica is, but I do know that you’re JAMAICAN ME CRAZY WITH ALL THESE QUESTIONS HA HA GET IT”

This is something I didn’t consider when explaining that Johnson’s abject ignorance about the world beyond America’s borders doesn’t matter because, you know, he and I have nearly the same chance of being elected president next month. It is true that American voters might respond to a restrained foreign policy, though we should never underestimate the American public’s ability to psyche itself up for war. At the very least it would be wonderful if a competent, thoughtful candidate who was able to really articulate that position were given a chance to articulate it to voters. But Johnson was never going to be that candidate. Ashford is right on when she writes this: Continue reading

Full of sound and fury


These guys are considerably less chummy of late

There are two ongoing situations dominating recent events in Syria. One is the month-long rebel advance north of the city of Hama, led by Jaysh al-Fatah (the partnership between Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra Fatah al-Sham that captured Idlib province from Bashar al-Assad last summer), Jund al-Aqsa (a Nusra offshoot), and elements of the Free Syrian Army (the effort to get the FSA to divest itself of ties to extremist groups is going gangbusters, I see). That offensive captured two predominantly Alawite towns today and may be in a position to consolidate its gains despite a heavy response from Assad’s air force. The main impetus behind the offensive has been to force Assad to divert resources from the second situation, the conflict/crisis in Aleppo, and in that sense it’s not clear how effective it’s been despite its territorial gains.

So, yeah, about Aleppo. There’s only so many ways you can say “everything about this is a nightmare” before you’re just repeating yourself to less effect each time, but certainly this is where we’re at:

The UN’s chief humanitarian official said the people of Aleppo are facing a humanitarian catastrophe worse than anything witnessed so far in Syria’s brutal five-year war.

Stephen O’Brien made the remarks to the UN security council on Thursday as Russia rejected calls to halt its bombing campaign on eastern Aleppo, saying it might consider a 48-hour humanitarian “pause” instead.

“Let me be clear: east Aleppo this minute is not at the edge of the precipice,” O’Brien said. “It is well into its terrible descent into the pitiless and merciless abyss of a humanitarian catastrophe unlike any we have witnessed in Syria.

“Syria is bleeding. Its citizens are dying. We all hear their cry for help.”

Yesterday, government air and artillery strikes reportedly hit two hospitals and a bread line in eastern Aleppo, and, look, either the Syrian military is aiming for these sorts of targets or it truly has no idea what it’s firing at, and either of those possibilities is pretty terrible to contemplate. Both Russia and Syria consistently deny that they’re bombing hospitals, but they might get more support for their denials if Syria’s UN ambassador stopped laughing about it when asked:

Continue reading

Who cares about Gary Johnson’s “Aleppo moments”?

Here I have helpfully compiled the top five reasons why it doesn’t matter that Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson essentially can’t name a single foreign leader–or at least not one who can be justified as “respectable”–if asked. Some of these are a little complex, but hopefully you’ll be able to follow along:

  1. Gary Johnson will never be president
  2. Gary Johnson will never be president
  3. Gary Johnson will never be president
  4. Gary Johnson will never be president
  5. Gary Johnson will never be president

I get it, though. Gary Johnson has the potential to play genuine spoiler this year, though counter-intuitively, for a libertarian candidate, it’s because he seems to be a threat to take more votes away from the Democratic nominee–though, I have to tell you, that narrative is not particularly compelling if you actually dig into the numbers. I have no idea whether Johnson voters are slightly more likely to vote for Trump or Clinton, or to forego voting altogether, if they abandon him for whatever reason, but there’s not very much evidence that they’re really going to make a difference in November.

But “Johnson hurts Clinton more than Trump” does seem to be turning into conventional wisdom, in large part because it’s a narrative that lets the chattering class justify one of its favorite pastimes: blaming young lefties for the ills of the world. So this is the frame under which Johnson’s candidacy is being covered and it’s almost certainly the mindset with which the Clinton campaign is approaching Johnson right now. Gaffes like this–and it is a gaffe, even though Matthews’ question was the dumbest kind of gotcha interviewing–and his “Aleppo” misstep–also a gaffe, also in response to a dumb, gotcha question–are going to be covered seriously. Now that Johnson has given his own ignorance a catchy name–“Aleppo Moment,” because why not compound stupidity with extraordinarily bad taste?–you’re only going to see that coverage grow.

But, at the risk of repeating myself, Gary Johnson will never be president. Who cares if he can name any world leaders or knows where and what “Aleppo” is? Obviously I can’t know this for sure, but I’d imagine you’d be hard pressed to find a single Gary Johnson supporter who thinks he’s got a chance to win in November, and I’m including Johnson himself in that group. They’re not planning to vote for him because they think he’s going to win–they’re planning to vote for him because they don’t like the two major party nominees. Confronting those voters with evidence that Johnson is manifestly unsuited to the job isn’t going to matter, because they already know he’s not going to get the job.

Johnson’s numbers may well shrink as the election approaches–that’s fairly typical for third and fourth party bids, though given the unprecedented unpopularity of the Clinton-Trump choice, who knows? I don’t, however, think his numbers will drop much because people are suddenly worried that he’ll make a bad president.