Conflict update: March 23 2017

UNITED KINGDOM

The man who killed four people yesterday, when he plowed into dozens of people on London’s Westminster Bridge before stabbing a police officer and attempting to get into parliament, has been identified as 52 year old British citizen Khalid Masood. He was apparently known to British security services, who interviewed him several years ago in connection with a “violent extremism” investigation, but was not on anybody’s radar in recent years for reasons that British authorities are going to have to investigate. He’d also apparently spent time in jail in the past on, among other things, “assault” charges, and one wonders if any of those were of the domestic variety.

Masood was reportedly radicalized by ISIS, which has predictably claimed credit for his attack despite the fact that it almost certainly had nothing directly to do with it.

BELGIUM

A French citizen of North African descent was arrested today in Antwerp on suspicion that he was attempting to drive his car into a crowd of people. Ultra-low tech “weapons” like vehicles and knives have become the lone wolf weapon of choice in Europe, as yesterday’s Westminster attack illustrates, and this is roughly the one year anniversary of the Brussels Airport attack, so the timing is auspicious.

SURE, WHATEVER

The Trump administration’s Director of World War II Reenactments, Sebastian Gorka, had A Thought about the terror attack in London yesterday:

A Trump administration official seized on the Westminster terror attack to justify the president’s blocked travel ban, which targets refugees and immigrants from six Muslim-majority countries, despite confirmation that the attacker was neither an immigrant nor a refugee.

Sebastian Gorka, a national security aide to the president and a former editor for the far-right news site Breitbart, told Fox News’s conservative talk show host Sean Hannity on Wednesday evening that the attack in Westminster, that left three people and the attacker dead, “should be a surprise to nobody”.

“The war is real and that’s why executive orders like President Trump’s travel moratorium are so important,” Gorka said.

The word “like” is doing a hell of a lot of work in that last bit there, because the actual Trump travel ban, had it been implemented in the UK, would have done nothing at all to prevent Masood’s attack, since Masood was a UK citizen. Of course that doesn’t matter–Gorka is just capitalizing on a tragedy to drum up support for his boss’s next attempt to block Muslims from coming into the US. He’s not interested in facts or accuracy, or even really basic human decency.

IRAQ

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Conflict update: March 16 2017

SYRIA

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The town of al-Jinah, just west of Aleppo (Google Maps)

“Dozens” (somewhere north of 50, but a final count probably won’t be available until at least tomorrow) of people were killed this evening when an airstrike hit a mosque in the town of al-Jinah, in western Aleppo province, at evening prayer. Upwards of 300 people may have been in the mosque when it was struck, so the death toll could be much higher than has already been reported. It’s still an open question who conducted the strike, but there’s a pretty good chance it was the US, as the Pentagon has already acknowledged carrying out an airstrike in the “vicinity” according to reporter Samuel Oakford:

A photo of missile debris reportedly taken from the scene supports this conclusion:

Oakford says that those US officials told him that the airstrike targeted an “al-Qaeda meeting place” near the mosque, but this is one of those cases where your intent doesn’t really matter. Bombing a place of worship is a war crime. There’s not much gray area there. If people are literally shooting at you from inside the building you might be able to justify something like this, but other than that it’s illegal, full stop.

If this does turn out to have been a US strike it would be, at best, Donald Trump’s second war crime in his two months on the job, after the botched special forces raid in Yemen that killed several Yemeni civilians. Its also reflective of the Trump administration’s overall plan to get more deeply involved in Syria, just not on the Assad-rebels front. The Pentagon is preparing to send 1000 more US troops to support the Syrian Democratic Forces in their eventual attack on Raqqa, as well as to serve as a deterrent against Turkey attacking the SDF. This strike would indicate a stepped-up campaign against al-Qaeda in Syria as well.

THAT’S SO GORKA

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Breitbart News editor turned key Trump national security adviser Sebastian Gorka (seen above, wearing his, uh, uniform) is being forced to deny that he’s a member of a Hungarian organization with ties to the Nazis. Several weeks ago, LobeLog’s Eli Clifton noticed that Gorka sometimes likes to wear a medal, which you can see in the photo above, from the Vitezi Rend. According to the State Department, and World War II/Hungarian historians, the Vitezi Rend organization, which was established after World War I to honor war veterans (well, non-Jewish war veterans), collaborated with the Nazis.

Gorka claimed that his father was “awarded” the medal for his time as a political prisoner in Communist Hungary in the 1950s, and that he (Sebastian) sometimes wears the medial to commemorate his father’s sacrifice, but that story doesn’t really check out. For one thing, only a Vitezi Rend member could get the medal, and for another, for Sebastian to wear it now means that he’s a member of the group himself. The Forward then dug into the Gorka story and reported on his ties to far-right antisemitic groups in Hungary, which prompted the Anti-Defamation League, last month, to demand that Gorka “disavow” those ties.

Then today happened. The Forward, building on their previous reporting, got leaders within Vitezi Rend to “confirm” that Gorka is an active member of their organization. This has prompted a number of human rights and Jewish groups to call for his resignation or firing, including the Anne Frank Center. What’s more, if Gorka really is a member of Vitezi Rend, his immigration status could be in question, according to the Forward:

Gorka’s membership in the organization — if these Vitézi Rend leaders are correct, and if Gorka did not disclose this when he entered the United States as an immigrant — could have implications for his immigration status. The State Department’s Foreign Affairs Manual specifies that members of the Vitézi Rend “are presumed to be inadmissible” to the country under the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Gorka — who Vitézi Rend leaders say took a lifelong oath of loyalty to their group — did not respond to multiple emails sent to his work and personal accounts, asking whether he is a member of the Vitézi Rend and, if so, whether he disclosed this on his immigration application and on his application to be naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 2012. The White House also did not respond to a request for comment.

The fact is that we don’t know whether Gorka disclosed his membership in Vitezi Rend to immigration authorities, but if he did it would be a simple thing to say so and put a big chunk of this story to bed. That he hasn’t done that is…suggestive. And the irony of a national security adviser in this administration playing fast and loose with the immigration process is nothing short of mind-boggling.

IRAQ

A combination of bad weather and stiff ISIS resistance continues to hamper Iraqi advances in western Mosul, but the operation is progressing slowly. Iraqi forces moved closer to the Nuri Mosque in Mosul’s Old City today, and made small gains in other parts of the city as well. While the fighting was going on the AP reported that US and Iraqi commanders seemed to have very different conceptions of how the operation is going, with the Americans estimating that about a third of western Mosul has been liberated and the Iraqis putting the figure at 60 percent. The simple explanation here is that the Iraqis are citing a figure that includes the Mosul airport and Ghazlani military base, places that aren’t really in the city proper but have nonetheless been included in the overall west Mosul offensive. The Americans are talking about the city itself. No scandal, just the Iraqis naturally putting the best possible spin on their progress to date.

Nineqah province’s Yazidi, Turkmen, and Assyrian Christian minorities are looking ahead to post-ISIS Iraq and pushing for an autonomous region for their groups, and other minorities who wish to join the effort. The region would be similar to the Kurdistan Regional Government, though none of these groups appear to have the KRG’s ultimate goal of independence in mind.

TURKEY

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is heading to Turkey on March 30 to try to mend fences with Ankara, but he may want to prime himself for a chilly reception. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems hell bent on doing as much damage to Turkey’s relations with western countries as necessary to win nationalist support in the April 16th referendum, and to that end he’s once again threatening to abrogate the refugee deal he reached with the European Union last year. This is something Erdoğan seemingly two or three times a day at this point, but he never actually follows through on his threats. Much like his repeated promises to unleash economic hell on the Netherlands, on this Erdoğan’s bark is worse than his bite. He knows that Turkey needs Europe economically as much as Europe needs Turkey to act as a migrant bottleneck.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A short time ago a rocket or rockets appear to have struck near Israeli settlements in the Jordan valley. Militants in Gaza often fire rockets into Israeli territory, but it’s not yet clear what happened in this case as far as I can tell.

Benjamin Netanyahu promised again today that he will build a brand new illegal West Bank settlement to replace the illegal Amona settlement that his government tore down last month. Bibi is nothing but generous with other people’s land.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett said today that the Israeli military should send Lebanon “back to the Middle Ages” if and when another Israel-Lebanon war breaks out. Justifying his comments on the basis that Hezbollah is “embedded” in Lebanon’s security apparatus, Bennett said that Lebanon’s “infrastructure, airport, power stations, traffic junctions, Lebanese Army bases…should all be legitimate targets.” I wonder what kind of schools this guy runs.

EGYPT

Writing for the Carnegie Endowment, Maged Mandour looks at the civilian toll Egypt’s Sinai operations have taken:

In addition, the number of casualties during counterterrorism operations far exceeds the estimated number of Wilayat Sinai fighters. Since the start of the large counterterrorism “Operation Martyr’s Right” in September 2015, the Egyptian military has reported that 2,529 militants were killed and 2,481 others arrested as of December 2016. However, foreign intelligence agencies, including the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Israel Defense Forces, estimated in mid-2016 that the size of Wilayat Sinai ranges from several hundred to a thousand militants, far below the numbers of reported killings. This disconnect can be explained by faulty intelligence or by inflating of the number of militants killed to include civilian deaths among militant deaths. The Egyptian government has a history of attacking civilians mistaken for militants. Local sources in Sinai back up the existence of such incidents, including an invented attack on a police station in Sheikh Zuweid that was used to justify the deaths of civilians in September 2013.

The counterinsurgency operation has increasingly been undifferentiated in its targeting of the local population. On January 13, five local youth were assassinated who were accused of being part of an attack on a police checkpoint that claimed the lives of eight policemen. In response, the local Bedouin tribes around the city of al-Arish launched a limited civil disobedience campaign to placate the public, refusing to pay water and electricity bills on February 11. The families claimed that at the time of the attack on the checkpoint, the five youth were already being held by state security forces, specifically the national security agency. This is not the first time that Egyptian security forces have been accused of executing defendants already in custody at the time of their alleged crimes, the most notable example of which is the case of Arab Sharkas. Six men were executed after being accused of killing soldiers during a Wilayat Sinai raid on the village of Arab Sharkas in March 2014, even though there was strong evidence that they were under arrest at the time the raid was committed.

SAUDI ARABIA

King Salman’s visit to China has paid off to the tune of $65 billion in new economic deals between the two nations. The countries reportedly agreed to deepen their ties on fossil fuel and renewable energy, with China possibly purchasing a stake in state-run Saudi oil giant Aramco before it goes public. Riyadh desperately needs new investment to boost its stagnating economy at a time when oil prices are low and look to remain relatively low for the foreseeable future. Salman also said he hopes China will increase its political and diplomatic engagement in the Middle East, but Chinese President Xi Jinping sounded noncommittal on that front.

IRAN

The deputy speaker of Iran’s parliament, Ali Motahhari, is demanding that Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi explain a recent spate of arrests of prominent reform activists in the lead up to May’s presidential election. Motahhari is furthermore threatening to begin impeachment proceedings against Alavi if he refuses to explain the situation to parliament. Alavi, as intelligence minister, answers to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, not to President Hassan Rouhani nor, for that matter, to parliament, so if Motahhari were to attempt to follow through on this threat it could precipitate a significant government crisis.

KASHMIR

The Indian government seems to be moving quickly to approve and start work on six hydropower projects in Kashmir. Nice, renewable energy, am I right? Well, hold up a second. While there’s a lot of money to be made in these projects, they all happen to involve tributaries of the Indus River whose waters eventually flow into Pakistan. So in addition to generating electricity, these six dams, once built, could conceivably allow the Indian government to, I don’t know, artificially cause a famine in Pakistan by depriving it of enough water for irrigation. A water war involving two nuclear-armed states sounds like it might not be the best thing for the environment (or, really, anything else), but maybe that’s just me.

I’m no civil engineer or whatever, but it’s likely that these projects could be undertaken in such a way as to alleviate Pakistani concerns over water flow through the Indus valley. It’s also likely that the Indian government is going to use these dams as leverage to try to get Pakistan to do more to tamp down Kashmiri separatists.

MYANMAR

A commission set up by Aung San Suu Kyi’s government and led by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, charged with investigating the plight of the Rohingya community, said today that the Myanmar government must allow some 120,000 Rohingya to leave the decrepit internal refugee camps where they’ve been forced to live for the past five years. Annan’s commission further called upon the government to ensure that those Rohingya are guaranteed security and a way to make a living at the sites to which they return once they’ve left the camps.

PHILIPPINES

A Filipino legislator has filed impeachment charges against President Rodrigo Duterte. There’s about as much chance of this going anywhere as there is of me being appointed the next FBI Director, but hey, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.

NORTH KOREA

This sounds promising:

The Trump administration made a clear break Thursday with diplomatic efforts to talk North Korea out of a nuclear confrontation, bringing the United States and its Asian allies closer to a military response than at any point in more than a decade.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that 20 years of trying to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program had failed and that he was visiting Asia “to exchange views on a new approach.”

Soon after Tillerson’s remarks, in a sign of mounting tensions, the North Korean Embassy held an extraordinary news conference in Beijing to blame the potential for nuclear war on the United States while vowing that its homegrown nuclear testing program will continue in self-defense.

We’re fast approaching the point where the only way to keep Donald Trump’s promise that North Korean will never develop an ICBM will be to strike the country’s missile facilities, which is a scenario that probably won’t end well. Absent diplomacy, it’s hard to see where else this situation can go.

SOMALIA

Somali pirates released the oil tanker they’d hijacked a couple of days ago, along with the crew, after a long day that included a gun battle with Somali naval forces and negotiations with tribal elders on shore. They reportedly agreed to release the ship without being paid a ransom after they’d learned that it had been hired by Somali businessmen.

UKRAINE

Kiev imposed sanctions on a number of Russian-owned banks today, preventing their Ukrainian branches from moving money out of the country.

GREECE

A Greek group calling itself “Conspiracy of Fire Cellsclaimed responsibility for sending a letter bomb to German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble on Wednesday, thereby also implicating themselves in a letter bombing at the International Monetary Fund’s Paris headquarters today. The German bomb was intercepted, but the Paris bomb did injure the person who opened it. That bomb was apparently sent from Greece, hence suspicion falling on this “Fire Cells” group.

BALKANS

Johannes Hahn, the European Union official in charge of bringing new countries into the bloc, spoke to the prime ministers of Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia in Sarajevo today. His message? Settle your various internal and external beefs so that you can join the EU. The problem with that message? Between Brexit and the rise of anti-expansion right-wing governments in EU states like Poland and Hungary, there’s little reason for any of the six Balkan states to believe they’re ever going to join the EU no matter what they do. The carrot only works if the horse knows it’s eventually going to get to eat the damn thing.

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Conflict update: March 11-12 2017

TURKEY

So let’s start with the good news: Turkey and the Netherlands haven’t declared war on each other. Yet. As far as I know. But the good news pretty much ends there. On Saturday, Dutch authorities took the fairly provocative step–look, I give Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a lot of shit around here, but I don’t think you can fairly describe what happened here as routine diplomacy–of actually preventing a plane carrying Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu from landing in Rotterdam as planned, and then detained Turkey’s family affairs minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, to prevent her from addressing the same referendum campaign rally that Çavuşoğlu was supposed to attend. Kaya was eventually deported to Germany.

I get that anti-immigrant fervor is high in the Netherlands right now and that the country is about to have an election this week that will turn largely on that issue. I also get why the government of any European country would be uneasy about hosting Turkish political rallies in general, but particularly in favor of a referendum whose purpose is basically to strip Turkish democracy for spare parts. But you don’t get to deny landing rights to a plane carrying a diplomat from an ostensible ally, and you certainly don’t get to just go around detaining and deporting government ministers from ostensible allies when they haven’t actually done anything illegal. The mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, said that Kaya and the Turkish consulate had lied to him about the purpose of her visit, but that still doesn’t excuse the treatment it seems she received.

Ankara did its usual thing, with Erdoğan calling the Dutch government “Nazis” and threatening unspecified retribution, like the Janissaries are going to be riding through downtown Amsterdam by the end of the week or something. Whatever Ankara does to punish the Netherlands won’t be much because it can’t be much. The biggest club in Erdoğan’s bag with respect to Europe is turning Syrian refugees loose in the Balkans, and that won’t affect the Netherlands very much, if at all. Some, including Çavuşoğlu, have mentioned possible sanctions, but that’s an arms race Turkey may not be able to win–if they push too far, there’s a small but not that small chance that the European Union could reexamine Turkey’s EU accession agreements in ways that would substantially hurt Turkish nationals living in other European countries. The Turkish government has called on “international organizations” to sanction Amsterdam for its actions, but that seems unlikely. The only blowback so far has been against Turkey–the government of Denmark announced that a visit scheduled for next weekend by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım will now be postponed.

SYRIA

On Saturday, two suicide attacks struck the Bab al-Saghir area of Damascus, killing somewhere between 40 (the government estimate) and 74 (according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights) people. Bab al-Saghir (“the small gate”) is, as its name suggests, one of the seven gates in the wall of Damascus’s “old city,” and the area is home to a cemetery that includes shrines to a number of prominent figures in Shiʿism (children of imams, that sort of thing). That was, presumably, the target. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (“Committee for the Liberation of Syria”), the alliance of extremist groups led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, claimed credit for the bombing and said it was intended to send a message to Tehran about its involvement in Syria.

Bashar al-Assad did an interview with Chinese TV this weekend in which he gushed about the close ties between Damascus and Beijing and dangled the huge carrot of a big Chinese role in rebuilding Syria after the war is over. The interview comes just after China joined Russia in vetoing a UN Security Council measure that would have sanctioned Assad’s government for its probable use of chemical weapons during the civil war, and when China appears to be getting more involved in the war on Assad’s side, partly because Assad has always had decent relations with Beijing but also because the Chinese government is concerned about Uyghurs who have left Xinjiang to fight with Syrian jihadi forces. In the same interview, Assad said he’s “hopeful” about the Trump administration but characterized new US forces being deployed to eastern Syria as an “invasion.”

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Conflict update: February 15 2017

Meet the New Boss(‘s Adviser)

In a rare flash of lucidity, Donald Trump has reportedly offered his now-vacant National Security Advisor position to Vice Admiral Robert Harward, instead of, say, Steve Bannon, or John Bolton, or Chucky, the doll from those horror movies. It’s hard to evaluate Harward for two reasons: one, most military brass tend to keep their personal views pretty close to the chest (the ones who don’t, like Michael Flynn, get a lot of attention in part because they really are the exception), and two, pretty much anybody was going to look good compared to Flynn. One thing we do know is that Harward and Defense Secretary James Mattis get along quite well with one another, where Mattis and Flynn did not, so that could be good or bad depending on your preference for intra-administration feuds.

As far as I know Harward hasn’t actually accepted the job yet, and he may not accept it if Trump refuses to allow him to clear Flynn’s people out of the National Security Council. In particular, Flynn’s deputy, KT McFarland, was apparently told by Trump that she could stay in her job, but it’s hard to imagine why Harward, or anybody else for that matter, would want to keep this person on in such an important job.

Israel-Palestine

It got somewhat underplayed because the Flynn scandal is still sucking up most of the national security oxygen, but Donald Trump erased at least 15 years of US policy in one fell swoop earlier today:

Speaking at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to scuttle long-standing U.S. support for a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians.

If “Bibi” and the Israelis and the Palestinians are all happy, “I am looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like… I can live with either one,” Trump said.

Putting aside a lot of justifiable concern from the Palestinian Authority at this sea-change in American policy (though, who knows, Trump could do a complete 180 by tomorrow), the two-state solution is well and truly dead and has been for some time now. Indeed, during the press conference Netanyahu made it quite clear that his vision of the future in Israel-Palestine by definition excludes the possibility of a separate Palestinian state. But there’s also no one-state solution that “both parties like.” There’s the one-state solution that means apartheid or worse for the Palestinians, which they obviously won’t like, and there’s the one-state solution that means Israel will no longer be a majority Jewish state, which “Bibi” obviously won’t like.  I’d ask whether Trump understands this, but I don’t know that the question is relevant.

In return for Trump’s indulgence, which included only the mildest of rebukes toward his ethnic cleansing policies in the occupied West Bank, Netanyahu made sure to praise Trump, whose chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is an anti-Semite, as a great friend of the Jews. If the two of them had started literally scratching each others’ backs right there in front of the press they couldn’t have been any more blatant about what they were doing. Netanyahu also asked Trump to bless Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, something that will go over real well if it’s coupled with a move to put a large number of new US soldiers on the ground in Syria (see below).

Syria

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Conflict update: February 1 2017

Iran

If the Trump administration accomplishes nothing else in its (hopefully only) four years in office, provoking a war with Iran seems to be at the top of its bucket list. How else do you explain the National Security Advisor taking the podium at a White House press briefing and doing this:

“Recent Iranian actions, including a provocative ballistic missile launch and an attack against a Saudi naval vessel conducted by Iran-supported Houthi militants, underscore … Iran’s destabilizing behavior across the Middle East,” Trump’s national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, told journalists at a White House press briefing Feb. 1.

Criticizing the Obama administration for failing “to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions,” Flynn said Iran was now feeling emboldened.

“As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice,” Flynn warned.

Iran’s ballistic missile tests are genuinely provocative, there’s no question about that. But Trump’s foreign policy team isn’t satisfied just complaining about Tehran’s missile tests. So they want to make Iran responsible for an attack by Yemeni rebels, whose involvement with Iran is marginal, on a Saudi naval vessel, at a time when the Saudis are bombing Yemen to rubble. There’s no evidence that the Houthi boat attack on Monday had anything to do with Iran, but the administration knows it can assert one without any serious chance of blowback. Trump officials insist that they aren’t conflating Yemen and the missile tests with the nuclear deal, which they say the administration is committed to upholding, but that’s a ruse. The plan, in all likelihood, is to recreate the same sanctions infrastructure that existed before the nuclear deal was reached, simply under non-nuclear pretenses. Maybe Iran will decide to walk away from the JCPOA at that point, which will give Trump a casus belli, but even if they don’t the punitive US sanctions will all be back in place.

Syria

The Syrian army appears to be trying to get into al-Bab before Turkey and its rebel proxies can take the city, which sets up the possibility that the Syrian and Turkish armies are going to start shooting at one another once they’re both done shooting at ISIS. It’s unlikely that the Syrians would go on the offensive against Turkey, but their aim is probably to swoop in and gain control of al-Bab before Turkey can, which would then put the Turks in the position of either abandoning their goal or attacking the Syrians.

Washington is once again trying to put together an Arab army capable of capturing Raqqa from ISIS. A 3000 man unit called the Syrian Elite Forces, commanded by Ahmad Jarba, seems to be at the core of this new attempt. Previous efforts at finding somebody, anybody, other than the YPG capable of undertaking this mission have fizzled out, and even though there is an Arab contingent within the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, it’s not enough on its own to take the city. The Trump administration has begun delivering armored vehicles to the SDF, which represents an escalation in American aid to the group.

Preparations are being made, rhetorically at least, for the next round of peace talks in Geneva on February 20. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said today that talks need to focus on a transitional government, but he was understandably non-committal about what role Bashar al-Assad would play in that transition, and there, as it has for nearly six years now, lies the rub. Diplomatically, the rebels are singling out Iran as their primary antagonist apart from Assad, undoubtedly thinking–as Ankara and now Washington are also apparently thinking–that with enough enticement/pressure, Russia could be made to distance itself from the Iranians, which would then leave Assad more vulnerable.

Iraq

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Conflict update: January 31 2017

After yesterday’s marathon catch-up session, I’m going to try to keep this one relatively short.

Ukraine

Fighting in and around the town of Avdiivka, in the northern part of Donetsk, has reached a level serious enough to move the UN Security Council to express its collective “grave concern.” At least eight people were reportedly killed there today, and while total casualty figures are sketchy, it seems that upwards of 20 people, and maybe even more–Ukrainian soldiers, separatists, and civilians alive–have been killed since Sunday. Each side is naturally accusing the other of initiating the new round of violence, but frankly both have reasons to escalate right now, to try to stake out their positions before the new US administration firms up its Ukraine policy. The State Department has also expressed concern over the fighting, but otherwise the Trump administration hasn’t said anything. Make of that what you will.

Syria

Not very much to say today. The next round of talks in Geneva, which was supposed to begin on February 8 but was then postponed, has now been rescheduled for February 20. The hope is that the extra time will allow the ceasefire to take deeper root and give the rebels time to organize their delegation. The heaviest fighting today seems to have taken place in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, where the government claims its forces have made significant gains against rebel fighters in the past several hours.

In good news, the UN World Food Programme has been able to resume air drops of food and other basic supplies into the besieged eastern city of Deir Ezzor, even though heavy fighting continues to rage there between government and ISIS forces. Apparently they’ve found a new drop zone that is safe from the fighting.

Rumors persist that Bashar al-Assad recently suffered a “mini-stroke” and was treated in Beirut. Those same rumors say his condition is not life-threatening but that he may have some impaired movement on his left side. Obviously there’s not enough to go on here to say that these reports are genuine, but there’s also no particular reason to go by the Syrian government’s denials either.

Iraq

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Conflict update: January 30 2017

Iraq

Purely by coincidence, my absence from regular blogging coincided with the planned lull in the Mosul operation. With eastern Mosul having been liberated just before I checked out, the Iraqis have been laying the groundwork for the eventual assault on the western half of the city. Iraq forces have been actively liberating villages north of Mosul, shelling ISIS fighters building defensive works on the west bank of the Tigris, and moving units into place to prepare to cross the river.

Increasingly it appears that the paramilitary and predominantly Shiʿa Popular Mobilization Units will have a much larger role to play in anti-ISIS operations moving forward, which violates a number of the principles Baghdad laid out (and in some cases guaranteed to third parties) before the Mosul operation began. To wit:

  • The PMU is probably going to be given the responsibility of liberating Tal Afar from ISIS. You may recall that the role of the PMU was a concern from the beginning of the offensive, and when it was announced that the units would concentrate on the area west of Mosul, Turkey raised objections to the idea that those forces might enter Tal Afar, where it’s feared that they could carry out reprisal attacks against Sunni Turkmens who are suspected of having collaborated with ISIS back in 2014.
  • It also appears that some PMU forces are going to participate in the west Mosul offensive, though the extent of their involvement, and whether they’ll be allowed to enter the city, isn’t clear. Before the offensive the idea that the PMU might enter Mosul was seen as a non-starter, both because their presence might alienate Mosul’s civilians and because, again, Turkey would take issue.

The reason for the apparent change in plans is sheer manpower. It’s been a few months now and the regular Iraqi army force that was supposed to liberate Tal Afar just hasn’t materialized. In Mosul, meanwhile, there aren’t even enough Iraqi police forces to fully secure the eastern side of the city as it is, and that’s before they start being diverted to the western side of the city. Unless Baghdad wants to take a few months off to rebuild its forces, the PMU are going to have to play a larger role because they still have the numbers. Additionally, it would seem that the people in east Mosul were so happy to be freed from ISIS control that fears about how the PMU might be received could be overblown. On the other hand, these moves–if they materialize–will generate a response from Turkey.

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Atheel al-Nujaifi (Wikimedia | Bernd Schwabe)

Speaking of Turkey, one of the political sideshows accompanying the liberation of Mosul has been the status of Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Ninewah province from 2009 through 2015. Baghdad has had an arrest warrant out for Nujaifi since last October, accusing him, during his time as governor, of facilitating the entry and basing of Turkish forces on Iraqi soil, but Nujaifi is under the protection of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil and is thus untouchable. Since the Mosul operation began, Nujaifi and his Hashd al-Watani militia have been working with Iraqi forces north of Mosul, and when the eastern side of the city was liberated he apparently entered it like a conquering hero. His many political enemies, who helped push that October arrest warrant, are pushing for him to be arrested now that he’s left the sanctuary of Erbil. Nujaifi has political sway with Iraqi Kurds, Turkey, and Sunni Arabs in Ninewah, plus his own small army, so he does have a lot of support. He seems to think he can stage a political comeback by making Ninewah’s autonomy from Baghdad his main cause, but his presence in Mosul is potentially destabilizing–though not as potentially destabilizing as his arrest would be.

In Nice news, the Iraqi government is undertaking multiple projects to study and protect the country’s rich archeological record. ISIS unfortunately sold off or destroyed whatever it could in the places it conquered, but it’s very important from both national and financial perspectives that Baghdad protects what remains.

Syria

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