Conflict update: April 21 2017

Hopefully a short one tonight. I’m getting a bit of a late start and actually don’t think there’s much to report for a change.


The first phase of that major four-town evacuation (Fuʿah, Kefraya, Zabadani, and Madaya) has concluded successfully with an additional agreement for the Syrian government to release hundreds of detainees. The whole deal was thrown into chaos last weekend over a terrorist attack on buses evacuating people from Fuʿah and Kefraya, but it seems to have resumed pursuant to another agreement reached between its two international backers, Qatar and Iran, over some Qataris who were being held captive in Iraq (more on that in a moment). I’m not entirely clear on the relationship between these two deals, but it seems like the Syrian deal would have stalled had this Iraqi arrangement not come together.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told Russia’s Sputnik news agency today that Jordan is preparing an invasion of southern Syria in coordination with the US. The Jordanians have forcefully denied that they have any such plan.


That Iraqi deal involved the release of 26 Qatari hunters, including members of the Qatari royal family, who had been kidnapped in southern Iraq by, uh, somebody in December 2015. Who exactly kidnapped them has never been clear, but it now seems that at least we can say that Iran was able to negotiate on their behalf.

There’s still little new to report from Mosul. Iraqi counter-terrorism forces are continuing to advance into the center of western Mosul, west of the Old City area where most of ISIS’s defenses have been located, and in the Old City itself things have remained static for weeks apart from one Iraqi police advance along the western edge of the neighborhood on April 16.


Turkish opposition leaders have gone to court to appeal the election board’s decision to accept improperly unstamped ballots during Sunday’s referendum. This is unlikely to have any effect. They’ll first try to adjudicate the case in Turkish courts, which have largely had their independence stripped by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and then they may take the case to the European Court on Human Rights, whose rulings Erdoğan will almost certainly feel free to just ignore. The opposition even seem resigned to this, with an HDP spokesman suggesting the appeal is more to have it on the record for historical purposes than anything else.


Credit where credit is due, President Trump seems to have successfully negotiated the release of US citizen Aya Hijazi from Egypt, where she’d been detained without trial for three years. She returned to the US this morning. Hijazi and her husband had been running a non-profit caring for homeless children in Egypt when she was arrested on charges of child trafficking that were never substantiated or brought to trial. The case against her was dropped after Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited DC earlier this month and Trump fawned over him, so it seems pretty clear that all that ass-kissing helped get Hijazi out of jail. Like I said, credit where credit is due.


A Taliban attack on a military base in Balkh province today killed more than 50 Afghan soldiers. Suicide bombers apparently breached the gate and gunmen entered the base, killing soldiers who were, among other things, eating lunch and at midday prayer.


Opposition lawmakers are demanding that Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif step down while an investigation is ongoing into his family’s finances and potential corruption. Pakistan’s top court ordered the investigation yesterday but opted not to remove Sharif from office.



Vice President Mike Pence has taken his stern face to Australia for the weekend, where he’ll be expected to smooth over any lingering bad feelings from Trump’s first phone conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. He arrives at a time when the Australian government is being slammed by human rights groups for the inhumane conditions at its offshore migrant detention centers on the islands of Manus and Nauru, and, well, he and Turnbull should have a lot to talk about.

Meanwhile, Australian scientists say that analysis of ocean currents and drift patterns strongly suggests that missing flight MH370–remember that?–probably crashed into the Indian Ocean in an area north of where everybody was looking before the search was suspended last year. Now they just need a government or two willing to spend more money on a new search, so…good luck with that.


The Kenyan military says it killed 52 al-Shabab militants in a Friday morning attack on one of their camps in Somalia’s southern Lower Juba province.


Although it announced that it was pulling out of the operation to destroy Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army last month, the Trump administration has apparently decided to continue America’s involvement in the operation after all. Uganda announced that it was pulling out of the operation earlier this week, and that seems to have caused a change of heart in Washington.


Say, this seems like great news:

American and Canadian fighter planes scrambled to intercept two Russian TU-95 “Bear” bombers Thursday night, marking the fourth consecutive night of Russian probes near the Alaskan coast, U.S. defense officials said Friday.

At no point did the Russian aircraft cross into American or Canadian airspace, but the incursions into the Air Identification Zones — which extend beyond the territorial waters of the U.S. and Canada — represent a sharp increase in activity in the area, which has seen no Russian activity at all since 2015. The flights may also herald the return of Moscow’s 60-year-old nuclear capable bomber to the international stage, after the entire fleet was grounded in 2015 after a rash of accidents.

Frankly, I don’t understand why Putin would want to provoke a conflict here when the Trump administration, despite its newfound anti-Russia ethos, seems pretty intent on destroying America without any outside help.


French police are investigating reports that Champs-Élysées shooter Karim Cheurfi may have had at least one accomplice. There seems to be some confusion related to ISIS’s unusually rapid claim of responsibility for the attack, which they attributed to an “Abu Yusif al-Belgiki.” That’s an obvious pseudonym (Abu Yusif the Belgian), but was it Cheurfi’s pseudonym? He wasn’t Belgian, so that’s at least a little weird. The oddness of the name and the fact that, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, ISIS claimed this attack very quickly, leaves open the possibility that ISIS thought this attack was actually some other attack that it’s got in the cards. That’s unlikely, but there are still some things about this case that aren’t quite adding up.

Sunday is of course election day, and with polling still a mess it’s not clear how things are going to turn out. Five Thirty Eight’s Harry Enten says that, going by the polls, any two of the top four candidates could wind up in the May 7 runoff. Now consider the uncertainty caused by this terror attack–the historical evidence as to what kind of impact attacks like this have on elections is mixed, but they often do have some impact. Donald Trump is unsurprisingly supporting fellow reactionary xenophobe Marine Le Pen, but given how monumentally unpopular Trump is in France, that might not help. Even if Le Pen does make it into the second round of voting, polling has consistently put her so far behind each of the other leading candidates that it’s very difficult to imagine she’d be able to pull out a victory. Still, on the principle that anything could happen, it would be better if she finished out of the top two on Sunday.

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Conflict update: March 18-19 2017



If you’re one of those folks who are convinced that climate change is a Chinese hoax or whatever, I’ve got great news: it snowed in the US last week. Problem solved, am I right? Anyway, for the rest of us, things are not so hot. Or, rather, they’re extremely hot, and that’s the problem:

February 2017 was the planet’s second warmest February since record keeping began in 1880, said NOAA’s National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI) on Friday; NASA also rated February 2017 as the second warmest February on record. The only warmer February was just last year, in 2016. Remarkably, February 2017 ranked as the fourth warmest month (expressed as the departure of temperature from average) of any month in the global historical record in the NASA database, and was the seventh warmest month in NOAA’s database—despite coming just one month after the end of a 5-month long La Niña event, which acted to cool the globe slightly. The extreme warmth of January 2017 (tenth warmest month of any month in NASA’s database) and February 2017 (fourth warmest) gives 2017 a shot at becoming Earth’s fourth consecutive warmest year on record, if a moderate or stronger El Niño event were to develop by summer, as some models are predicting.

Arctic sea ice extent during February 2017 was the lowest in the 39-year satellite record, beating the record set in February 2016, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). The record low ice extent was due, in large part, to very warm air temperatures in the Arctic—temperatures at the 925 mb level (approximately 2,500 feet above sea level) were 2 – 5 degrees Celsius (4 – 9 degrees Fahrenheit) above average over the Arctic Ocean during February.

Sea ice has been exceptionally scant on the other end of the globe. Antarctic sea ice extent dropped below the lowest values recorded in any month in the satellite record by mid-February. They continued to sag until reaching a new record-low extent in early March.

NOAA also said a few days ago that this December-January-February period was the second hottest on record. But really, how about that snowstorm?


Continue reading

Conflict update: March 8 2017


I haven’t been able to read much more about the Vault 7 CIA hacking data dump today, and at any rate I readily admit that cybersecurity is out of my purview, but I think Herb Lin makes a good point here in arguing that from the CIA’s perspective, the damage wrought by this leak–at least based on what’s been made available so far–is probably limited. The big revelation concerns these CIA exploits of the operating systems for mobile devices, smart TV’s, etc., and the vulnerabilities in those systems would likely have been discovered and patched eventually–unless Apple, Samsung, et al are incompetent and/or leaving known vulnerabilities unpatched for some reason.


At least 26 people were killed today when two apparent suicide bombers struck a wedding party in a village outside of Tikrit.

Inside Mosul, Iraqi forces holding on to the city’s main government building complex appear to have withstood yesterday’s ISIS counterattack and consolidated their gains. Iraqi and American commanders are talking in terms that suggest the battle is already over, with coalition spokesman Colonel John Dorrian, for example, saying yesterday that “the Iraqi security forces are moving very rapidly right now. The enemy is not able to stop their advances.” This seems to be a fair assessment. While there is hard fighting ahead and there will be periodic setbacks like yesterday’s counterattack, west Mosul is fully surrounded and there’s little ISIS can do over the long haul to prevent the Iraqi-coalition forces from grinding down their defenses. Indeed, this has been the case since the Mosul operation began, which explains why Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly hightailed it out of Mosul before the action started.

Musings on Iraq’s Patrick Wing continues to follow the twists and turns of Ninewa province’s post-ISIS political future:

A parliamentary (MP) told New Sabah that the Arab parties were opposed to former Governor Atheel Nujafi and current Vice President Osama Nujafi’s plans to make the province a federal region. The MP went on to say that the Nujafis were working with the Kurds to fragment Ninewa. These arguments will only increase as more time passes as there are a plethora of forces vying to control Ninewa ranging from the Nujafis to Kurdish President Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) to Prime Minister Haidar Abadi to the standing provincial government to Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) to Turkey itself to the various minority groups that reside there.



Syria as of March 7; note the government’s (red) advance south of al-Bab (Wikimedia | Ermanarich)

If you’re looking to handicap the next round of Geneva peace talks, now scheduled for March 23, consider that the Syrian government and/or its Russian allies apparently still can’t manage to stick to a ceasefire for a full 24 hours: Continue reading

Conflict update: December 27 2016

This may be mercifully (for all of us) short tonight.

World War III

Senator John McCain (R-WEBOMBINGANYONEYET) went to Estonia today and said some words about America’s commitment to NATO and protecting its Baltic members from possible Russian aggression. He was trying to reassure the Baltic states in advance of Donald Trump’s inauguration, Trump having as much as said during the campaign that he wouldn’t participate in military action to defend the Baltics if push came to shove. But of course John McCain isn’t really in a position to make any promises about what the Trump administration might do in matters of war and peace, McCain having managed somehow to alienate Trump while endorsing him anyway.

I am not a huge fan of NATO. I am particularly not a huge fan of NATO expansion, which I lump in with a number of very stupid, shortsighted, chest-thumping decisions made by Western nations in the years after we “won” the Cold War. I do, however, think that treaties need to mean what they say, otherwise the entire global system will start breaking down with potentially massive unintended consequences. So I’m sympathetic to McCain’s argument here, and sympathetic to the argument that Trump’s refusal to commit to upholding America’s international agreements makes conflict more, not less, likely. But again, let’s be clear: what John McCain has to say about stuff like this means next to nothing.


The YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) is “hoping” that Washington will supply it with MANPADS now that Congress has opened the door for that sort of thing. Russia says any such move would be a “hostile act,” mostly because the only reason the SDF might someday need MANPADS would be to shoot down Syrian (or Russian, or Turkish) aircraft. But the Obama administration is flatly denying that it has any plans to provide MANPADS to anybody in Syria, on the grounds that doing so would be incredibly dangerous. Even the YPG would be a risk to use those weapons at least against Turkey, and that’s without factoring in the possibility that they might lose a handful of them to a group like ISIS or JFS that would certainly use them against Western civilian targets.

In other SDF-related news, their fighters are reportedly a mere five kilometers away from the Tabaqa Dam, about 40 km west of Raqqa, after an offensive that pushed ISIS out of a nearby village and killed somewhere between 25 and 38 of the group’s fighters.

Meanwhile, Turkey wants to bring Saudi Arabia and Qatar with it to the next round of Syrian peace talks with Russia and Iran. Good luck with that.


There’s been some small movement in eastern Mosul, but I’d rather focus today on the developing story in Sinjar. The PKK has been invited to set up shop in Sinjar by the Yazidis, who relied on PKK forces to help defend their people from ISIS back in 2014 after Iraqi peshmerga fled the area. But the PKK’s presence in Sinjar is unacceptable to almost everybody–Turkey and the Kurdistan Regional Government, obviously, but also the Iraqi government and even the US, which still views the PKK as a terrorist organization (and has to routinely do mental gymnastics to pretend that the YPG is not directly affiliated with the PKK). Everybody, that is, except the PKK and the Yazidis. If the PKK doesn’t leave Sinjar, then the situation could easily spiral into violence–between the PKK and KRG, who have gone to war with each other before, and maybe even between Turkey and Iraq. While the Iraqi government doesn’t like having the PKK in Sinjar, you can imagine that it won’t look kindly on a Turkish invasion–something Ankara has been threatening with respect both to Sinjar and Tal Afar–to dislodge them.


The first major trial involving people–in this case, 29 police officers–accused of participation in July’s failed coup has begun in Istanbul. Meanwhile, President Tayyip Erdoğan, whose Syria policy has included direct support for extreme jihadi groups like Ahrar al-Sham as well as for Jaysh al-Fatah, the joint operations command run by Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (AKA al-Qaeda in Syria), says the US is aiding terrorists in Syria. Pots and kettles everywhere rolled their eyes.


I hope you’re sitting down for this: the Israeli government is planning to build thousands of new homes in occupied East Jerusalem despite Friday’s UN condemnation of that practice. This is for some reason being cast by American media as “defiant” rather than, I don’t know, “illegal” or “a war crime.”


Representatives from Russia, China, and Pakistan met in Moscow today to discuss the security situation in Afghanistan, warning that ISIS’s growing presence in the country is particularly troubling.

What’s that? You’re wondering if there were any Afghan representatives at the conference to discuss Afghanistan?

Ha, funny story. It’s a reasonable question, but no, and Kabul is–understandably, I think–miffed about it. This was a meeting of the Taliban’s #1 patron (Pakistan), a country that has shown some interest in becoming another Taliban patron (Russia), and a country that just wants stability in Afghanistan (China), and they all shockingly concluded that Afghanistan has a big non-Taliban problem and that Kabul should really try being nicer to the Taliban and maybe that might clear things up. Then they promised to invite Afghanistan to come to their next meeting about Afghanistan, which seems big of them.

UPDATE: Shortly after I hit “post” on this, reports started coming in about an explosion in Kabul. This is the most recent news I’ve seen about it:


A new Somali parliament was sworn in today, so good for the–I’m sorry, the UN is trying to say something?

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Somalia called on Tuesday for a redo of the legislative balloting that began in October. It said there were a number of “egregious cases of abuse of the electoral process, including seats reserved for women candidates only that were ultimately taken by male candidates.”

Violence, corruption, intimidation and the unauthorized substitution of electoral college delegates also marred voting, the U.N. Somalia mission said in a statement. It said the decision to not disqualify candidates who allegedly committed election irregularities represented a blanket amnesty.

Huh. Well, that’s probably not good. The country was supposed to elect a new president on Wednesday, but that vote has been postponed and really maybe this one should have been as well.


Warring factions in Mozambique have agreed on a seven-day truce for New Years. Yes, I didn’t actually know there were any warring factions in Mozambique until I read this piece, but I’m glad they’re taking a break from the fighting. The conflict, between the right-wing opposition RENAMO party and the left-wing governing FRELIMO party, goes all the way back to the country’s 1976-1992 civil war but is now being fueled by competition to see who gets to control Mozambique’s apparently considerable offshore energy deposits.


Russian authorities are blaming a faulty wing flap for causing the crash of their military aircraft over the Black Sea on Sunday. Which presumably rules out terrorism.

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MENA conflict update, October 25


A day after informing the world that there would be no more humanitarian ceasefires in Aleppo unless the US somehow made al-Qaeda surrender, today the Russians let everybody know that their aircraft haven’t come within six miles of the city in a week and that they plan to continue this hold on airstrikes indefinitely. This freeze went largely ignored amid Russian and Syrian artillery bombardments of eastern Aleppo, which use ordinance that explodes just as well as something dropped from the air, but, ah, credit where credit is due, I guess. This seems less like an act of mercy on the Russians’ part and more like the kind of thing you’d do when shifting from bombarding a place to trying to conquer that place on the ground. All airstrikes are imperfect, and Russia and Syria aren’t exactly packing the latest in smart bomb technology, so if they’re sending ground forces in it’s more or less incumbent upon them to also ease off on the bombing runs. The Russians also said that, while another ceasefire is out of the question, corridors for people to evacuate the city could still be opened up if there’s a demand for it.

On the other major active front in Syria, Turkey and its rebel proxies are approaching the ISIS-held city of al-Bab, which is maybe 25 miles northeast of Aleppo, shown here:


(Google Maps)

The fight for al-Bab may be Turkey’s first real military test since it invaded Syria in August. Rao Komar at War on the Rocks compares it to the Syrian Democratic Forces’ operation to capture Manbij from ISIS, which took months, and he notes that the SDF was a heck of a lot better organized and more battle hardened than the rebels fighting with Turkey. On the other hand, the SDF didn’t have Turkish armor and air support, so I tend to think this operation will be easier than the capture of Manbij. That doesn’t mean it will be easy, though.

Also elsewhere in Syria, US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is talking as though the operation to capture Raqqa is going to begin soon, as in “before Mosul falls” soon:

“Yes, there will be overlap (in the Mosul and Raqqa campaigns) and that’s part of our plan and we are prepared for that,” Carter said after a gathering of 13 countries in the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.

That’s…interesting, considering that there are a lot of details about a Raqqa operation that are still up in the air, little questions like “what force is actually going to capture the city?” Recent reporting has suggested that there’s been some debate within the Obama administration about whether to push ahead with a Raqqa operation now or put more time into planning it. It sounds like the debate may be over.

Finally, elsewhere but not in Syria, Spain, of all places, is…well, read for yourselves:

Spain is facing international anger as it apparently prepares to refuel a flotilla of Russian warships due to step up strikes against the beleaguered city of Aleppo.

Politicians and military figures condemned the support from a Nato member, while the head of the alliance indicated Madrid should rethink the pit stop.

Warships from an eight-strong group led by the carrier Admiral Kuznetsov will take on fuel and supplies from the Spanish port of Ceuta after passing through the Straits of Gibraltar on Wednesday morning, Spanish papers reported.

The EU is in the middle of a messy internal debate over maybe sanctioning Russia over Syria, but with the Brexiting UK leading the push for more sanctions many of the rest of the EU states don’t seem inclined to go along. Spain regularly refuels Russian ships and makes some decent cash for their trouble, and they’re not about to let a little thing like more dead Syrians get in the way of that.

Mosul, Yemen, and Libya after the break.

Continue reading

Khalifa b. Hamad Al Thani (1932-2016)

It’s not often you hear about a former emir dying, because most emirs only become former emirs upon their death. But Khalifa b. Hamad Al Thani, the former Emir of Qatar and the grandfather of the current emir, Tamim b. Hamad Al Thani, had kind of an unusual regal experience, all things considered. And since I once lived in Qatar, I figured I should note his passing yesterday at the age of 84.

Khalifa succeeded his cousin, Ahmad b. Ali Al Thani, in a bloodless coup (remember that term, we’ll see it again) on February 22, 1972. Khalifa had previously served as Ahmad’s heir apparent and variously as his prime minister and finance minister, and he was really the one running the country on a day-to-day basis. So the coup, carried out while Ahmad was away on a hunting trip in Iran, created a minimal amount of disruption. Khalifa’s reign saw a fairly significant reconstruction of the Qatari government, as the cabinet was expanded at the expense of much of the traditional powers of the heir apparent–this is the royal example of climbing the ladder and then trying to pull it up after you, I guess. His reign also coincided with dramatic expansions in the Qatari oil and gas industries, and while this was certainly good news for the Qatari economy, it’s also where things eventually went wrong for Khalifa.

Although he tried to shrink the heir’s role in actual statecraft, when he named his son Hamad as heir apparent in 1977 he did begin giving the kid some actual jobs to do in order to prepare him to one day become emir. One of those involved running the Qatari Supreme Planning Council, which was responsible for setting the country’s economic direction. Obviously, with all those energy resources to play with, this was a very powerful position for the prince. And while this arrangement worked fairly well for several years, ultimately it was probably a move by Khalifa to take some of Hamad’s growing authority away that sparked the bloodless coup (told you) that ousted Khalifa in 1995. As in 1972, the action started when the emir had left the country, in this case for a vacation in Switzerland. Citing unnamed “circumstances” (i.e., the internal power struggle, plus it’s likely that Khalifa was a bit too enamored with intoxicating beverages), Hamad announced that he was seizing power. This went off without a hitch, mostly because it seems like everybody in the Qatari government except for Khalifa was fully aware of what was happening and most of them approved. Khalifa wasn’t a very active ruler anymore (hey, booze is a hell of a drug), and apparently most of the royal family believed that the country was better off in Hamad’s hands.

When now-Emir Hamad called him in Switzerland to break the news (“hey, dad, so you’ll never believe what happened today…”), Khalifa was understandably enraged. There followed what must have been a pretty hilarious attempt at a counter-coup to put Khalifa back on the throne: Continue reading

Another victim of cheap oil

Al Jazeera America is signing off:

Executives of Al Jazeera America (AJAM) today are holding a meeting at 2 p.m. Eastern Time to tell their employees that the company is terminating all news and digital operations in the U.S. as of April 2016, resulting in the loss of hundreds of jobs. The announcement marks a stunning and rapid collapse of what, from the start, has been a towering failure.

AJAM began when Al Jazeera purchased Current TV in late 2012 from founder Al Gore for $500 million, and the channel launched six months later. From the start, the project was beset with massive failures, from bitter internal strife and employee discrimination lawsuits to minuscule ratings and distribution failures. AJAM and Gore ended up in a protracted, embittered lawsuit with one another. Ratings were so low as to be almost unquantifiable; even by 2015, the network was averaging a tiny 30,000 viewers in prime-time and at some points had literally a zero rating in the key 25-54 demographic.

I realize they never really found a voice (were apparently unwilling to find one, actually) and their television programming left a lot to be desired. But in an American news market that’s already starved for world news, they were one of the few outlets that really seemed to make it a core focus. Al-Jazeera English isn’t going away, so that’s something, but AJAM’s TV coverage of world events is gone. Also, AJAM’s digital work was generally quite good; they employed a lot of talented writers doing important reporting on poverty, inequality, labor, prison reform, and other topics that don’t get so much attention at CNN, NBC, and the like. That work will genuinely be missed.

It’s no real mystery why this happened; the channel is hemorrhaging money left and right, and the Qatari government is no longer willing to subsidize a money loser with no tangible upside (from their perspective, per the ratings) with oil below $31/barrel. That price creates a lot of problems for a lot of countries:

Below are the break-even oil-price-per-barrel estimates for GCC countries this year, as calculated respectively by the IMF, the Institute of International Finance (IIF) and Deutsche Bank.

• Kuwait: $49.40 (IMF), $62.80 (IIF), $78.40 (Deutsche).

• Qatar: $60, $65.30, $76.80.

• UAE: $73.80, $73.60, $80.80.

• Saudi Arabia: $87.20, $109.40, $104.40.

• Oman: $102.60, $113.20, $110.00.

• Bahrain: $127.10, $130.20, $138.10.

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