Conflict update: December 26 2016


The fallout from Friday’s UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel’s illegal annexation of occupied Palestinian territory continued all weekend. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government began by summoning the ambassadors of the 12 security council members who voted in favor of the resolution and with which Israel has relations (Venezuela and Malaysia also voted yes but don’t have relations with Israel), plus the US, which abstained but didn’t exercise its veto. It recalled its ambassadors from Senegal and New Zealand, cancelled planned state visits from the Senegalese foreign minister and the Ukrainian prime minister, and announced that it was ceasing foreign aid to Senegal. You may note here that Israel seems to be heaping a lot of abuse on Senegal, but not so much on more powerful members of the council. Funny how that works. Today the Israelis announced that they were going to “suspend all working ties” with the 12 countries that voted “yes” and have diplomatic ties with Israel. What are “working ties,” you ask? Beats me. I’m not even sure Netanyahu knows. It sounds like a response and it’s ambiguous enough to mean anything, so there you have it. All in all, you might say we’ve seen a three-plus day-long Israeli tantrum.

True to form, rather than engage the substance of the resolution–it’s not even clear how he could engage with the substance without demonstrating that he’s been lying about his commitment to a two-state solution all the time–Netanyahu has tried to cast Friday’s vote as an international conspiracy against Israel (and, really, all Jews), masterminded by the Obama administration. And there’s something deeply revealing in that framing.

The resolution was about Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, period. It certainly wasn’t about Jews, and it wasn’t about Israel…unless, of course, you believe that the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem are both part of Israel. But international consensus, US policy, and stated Israeli policy since 1967 has been that these territories are not part of Israel–the entire concept of a “two-state solution” relies on the idea that the occupied territories are not part of Israel. Successive Israeli governments have pretended, with deceasing credibility, that they are firmly committed to a two-state peace. Netanyahu keeps insisting on it. But you can’t reconcile the settlements with a two-state peace, which is why any criticism of settlements is immediately conflated with an attack on Israel itself.

What’s happening now, amid Israel’s collective rage over a UN resolution that, at the risk of beating a dead horse, had no practical effect on anything, is that the curtain is being pulled back, the lie is being exposed. Anybody who believed, or pretended to believe for political reasons, that the Israeli government ever had any intention of giving up occupied territory in exchange for peace with the Palestinians must now reckon with proof that the Israeli government’s actual position is that the occupied territories are, were, and will remain part of Israel. Anybody who’s actually watched the settlement process and its slow-moving ethnic cleansing of the West Bank since the 1970s could have told you this, but it was easier for most people, and certainly most governments, to believe the pleasant lie that a negotiated two-state peace was possible. It’s suddenly become much harder to pretend that Israeli lip-service about trading land for peace has been anything more than a stalling tactic, a way to buy more time to build more settlements (with many more on the way) and drive more Palestinians off of more West Bank land.

And now that those cards are finally out on the table for everybody to see, it’s time for the rest of the world to decide how to deal with them. No more pleasant lies.


Reuters reported today that Iraqi troops are planning to resume their push on Mosul from the east in the coming days, after taking a lengthy pause to reinforce and refit their forces. Iraqi police have been brought in to reinforce the elite counter-terrorism units spearheading the operation–they will probably be used to secure liberated areas–and American forces are going to embed within the city for the first time, though they will supposedly still be off of the front line. Late last week there was a bit of action on the Iraqis’ long-dormant northern front, and on Saturday the Popular Mobilization Units liberated a village outside of Tal Afar. There has been fighting in eastern Mosul, but mostly ISIS attacking Iraqi units and Iraqi units trying to resecure previously liberated areas. Yesterday a coalition airstrike in western Mosul killed 20 civilians, and fleeing civilians are being “indiscriminately” (per HRW) targeted by ISIS, undoubtedly in an effort to convince other civilians to remain in place where they serve as unwitting human shields.

In Baghdad, ISIS marked Christmas by attacking a number of Christian establishments that sell alcohol. And bombings in the city yesterday killed at least 11 people.


With Aleppo city in Assad’s hands, the next front in the civil war is become clear, and it ain’t Palmyra. Oh, Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV station reported today that the Syrian army killed 25 ISIS fighters west of Palmyra, but Russian air power is being directed at rural Aleppo province and Idlib, the remaining rebel stronghold. Syrian air power, meanwhile, seems focused on dropping barrel bombs on civilians in the Damascus suburbs and on a new push to capture the capital city’s water supply from rebels who may have poisoned it a few days ago.

Last week, Ben Taub wrote in The New Yorker that the evacuation of Aleppo wasn’t an evacuation so much as it was a forced displacement and therefore a war crime. In fact the whole Aleppo operation was a series of war crimes, from the siege and its deprivations to the use of indiscriminate weapons against civilians. The rebels haven’t kept their hands clean, either–they’ve indiscriminately shelled western Aleppo, besieged and tried to starve out Shiʿa villages in Idlib, and by some accounts prevented civilians from fleeing eastern Aleppo, all of which are also war crimes. None of this really matters, though, as Taub writes:

As I have previously written, the volume and quality of court-ready evidence against high-level officials in the Syrian government is greater than has ever previously been collected in an active conflict. Still, the International Criminal Court has no jurisdiction over Syria, because Russia, voting no alongside China, obstructed the conflict’s referral at the U.N. Security Council, in 2014. A single country’s veto power shields all of Syria’s war criminals from justice—not just Assad and his deputies but also various rebels, including members of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State. The credibility of worthy institutions is at stake when they are totally incapable of adhering to their founding principles. Under the present system, to some war criminals with powerful allies, the laws of war, drafted during the bloodiest century in human history, can be brushed aside as little more than a suggestion, to be ignored, shamelessly, with impunity.


Early Christmas morning, a rebel force raided a military base in southern Saudi Arabia, killing one Saudi soldier. Earlier today, rebels seized the Al Jazeera bureau in Sanaa, probably in response to a documentary detailing their acquisition and use of heavy weaponry.

The AP ran a good piece on Saturday on the GCC-Hadi coalition’s failure to secure its biggest gain, Aden, though it’s been well over a year since they retook the city. Aden is supposed to be Hadi’s temporary capital as he reconquers the country, but it’s being blown to pieces by rival factions duking it out under his nose. The effect of this is two-fold: first, it’s a big part of the explanation why the war has settled into the horrific stalemate it’s currently in, as it’s left Hadi too weak to finish off the Houthis and too insecure to negotiate with them; and second, it’s fueling the southern separatist movement that will probably kick the war into a brand new phase if Hadi ever does take the country back.


Maybe the biggest story of the weekend was yesterday’s crash of a Russian military plane in the Black Sea that killed all 92 people on board, including many members of the Russian military’s famous Alexandrov choir. Some wreckage has been found today, and Russian authorities seem pretty convinced that pilot error or a malfunction, rather than terrorism, was responsible for the crash. However, terrorism can’t be ruled out yet–the plane was old but reportedly in good repair, and it apparently went off radar suddenly and without any notice from the crew. The plane was carrying the choir to Syria to entertain Russian troops there.


Hey, how’s the forging of an Afghan nation going?

The US military and the CIA are turning a blind eye as Afghanistan’s spy agency spends foreign donor money on militias which are committing human rights abuses that help destabilise the fragile country, according to local and western officials.

The Afghan national directorate of security (NDS) arms strongmen ostensibly to fight the Taliban and other militants. But some militia leaders use their new power to fight local turf wars, including against elected government officials, rather than insurgents.

Pretty much business as usual then.


You know, this whole fake news thing is all fun and games until somebody launches nukes over it:

A fake news article led to gunfire at a Washington pizzeria three weeks ago. Now it seems that another fake news story has prompted the defense minister of Pakistan to threaten to go nuclear.

The defense minister, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, wrote a saber-rattling Twitter post directed at Israel on Friday after a false report — which the minister apparently believed — that Israel had threatened Pakistan with nuclear weapons. Both countries have nuclear arsenals.

“Israeli def min threatens nuclear retaliation presuming pak role in Syria against Daesh,” the minister wrote on his official Twitter account, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “Israel forgets Pakistan is a Nuclear state too.”

Sheesh. On the plus side, yesterday Pakistan released 220 Indian fishermen picked up for illegally fishing in Pakistani waters, and they plan to release another 219 next week. It’s a small step toward maybe easing tensions between the two nuclear states, but it can’t hurt.


Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army is conducting airstrikes against a camp in central Libya used by the Benghazi Defense Brigades, an Islamist coalition that has been the LNA’s primary enemy over the past few months. And speaking of Haftar, Moscow is really starting to get invested in his future:

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov criticized the United Nations’ envoy to Libya for favoring other political forces in the North African country. His comments marked Russia’s strongest endorsement yet of Haftar, which may complicate Western-led efforts to shore up the weak, internationally-recognized government in the capital, Tripoli. Russia says the UN-mandated body is ineffective.

“We believe that the Libyans have to find a compromise on his participation in the new Libyan leadership,” Gatilov said of Haftar, who controls more territory than any other faction in the divided country, in written answers to questions from Bloomberg News.

I suspect they’ll find themselves fairly quickly on the same page as the Trump administration with respect to Haftar, who looks like a pretty decent bet to be the last man standing when Libya finally gets sorted out. And that will be a wonderful testament to the 2011 intervention, which will have saved the country from a military strongman and delivered it into the sheltering embrace of a different military strongman.


President Muhammadu Buhari announced on Saturday that Nigerian forces had driven Boko Haram out of its last base in Sambisa Forest. Sambisa has been the group’s main hiding place for several years, so if true this is no small development and may even mark the point when people who have been displaced by the conflict with Boko Haram may begin returning home. However, as if to make it clear that they’re not gone yet, today a female Boko Haram suicide bomber struck a market in the city of Maiduguri. The bomber was apparently the only person killed in the blast. Yesterday, a suicide bomber likely from Boko Haram struck a market in Mora, Cameroon, killing two people in addition to the bomber.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Still no word of a deal on Joseph Kabila’s future. At last word, on Saturday, talks had begun to break down as the two sides began to near a deal, and as far as I know that’s where things remain, teetering on the line between a deal or renewed protests and violence.

Meanwhile, in eastern DRC, a Nande militia attack killed 13 Hutu civilians yesterday, in a reprisal for a Hutu attack that killed Nande civilians last week.


Al-Shabab militants assassinated a prosecutor in Puntland yesterday.

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