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?


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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.

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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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Well, if it’s bad for the goose…

Has Saudi Arabia put Jimmy Malone in charge of selecting targets in Yemen?

Well, maybe:

Iran has accused Saudi Arabia of carrying out airstrikes against the Iranian embassy in Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, which it claimed left a number of guards wounded and damaged its diplomatic building, although witnesses said the compound was intact.

Tensions between Tehran and Riyadh have been rising after the Saudi execution of a prominent Shia cleric on New Year’s Day.

The Iranian foreign ministry spokesman, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, condemned what he called a deliberate provocation by Saudis, but the accuracy of the claim was unclear.

Media reports suggested that the mission itself was not hit, but that shrapnel from an attack on a house nearby wounded embassy guards. The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen has said it is investigating the Iranian allegation.

Yeah, so this is probably an Iranian attempt to seize on any chance to accuse the Saudis of targeting their embassies so as to try to shift the focus away from what happened to the Saudi embassy in Tehran over the weekend. Probably. But I suppose you can’t rule out the possibility that Riyadh was being deliberately provocative.

There have been a few new developments in the Saudi-Iran spat since last we visited with them. Qatar and Kuwait have both recalled their ambassadors to Iran, though neither has fully broken diplomatic ties with Tehran. Somalia has cut its ties to Iran, joining Sudan in forming an “African nations that depend on Saudi aid who are following Riyadh’s lead” bloc. The Iranians have responded by banning all Saudi imports and renewing an already existing ban on Iranians undertaking the Umrah, or the “lesser” (i.e., non-Hajj) pilgrimage to Mecca. The Hajj isn’t until September of this year, which gives both countries about eight months to patch things up and/or make things worse before Tehran has to decide whether or not to try to bar its citizens from undertaking that pilgrimage as well.

Hey, thanks for reading! If you come here often, and you like what I do, would you please consider contributing something (sorry, that page is a work in progress) to keeping this place running and me out of debtor’s prison? Also, while you’re out there on the internet tubes, please consider liking this blog’s Facebook page and following me on Twitter! Thank you!