Conflict update: December 28 2016

In the rarest of rarities, I might actually get to go on a date with my wife this evening, so I’m getting this out there early. If anything big happens later I’ll come back and update.


John Kerry’s speech on the Israel-Palestine peace process was perhaps (though perhaps not; see below) the biggest story of the day. Part standard US argument in favor of the two-state solution, part defense of the Obama administration’s approach to the issue (including last week’s UN abstention), part parting shot at Benjamin Netanyahu, the speech was shocking in that you will almost never find a US Secretary of State willing to speak candidly at length about all the ways in which the Israelis, not just the Palestinians, have thwarted efforts to achieve peace. But at the same time, this was an 11th hour (later, really) speech from an outgoing Secretary in a lame-duck administration, and in practical terms it really couldn’t be less consequential.

As soon as I can find a transcript I’m planning on posting excerpts at LobeLog, but Kerry put “settlement expansion” right alongside Palestinian violence–which he also condemned–as a reason why the two-state solution is currently receiving last rites. It was as firm a restatement of US policy (well, pre-Donald Trump US policy) on settlements as you’ll find, but, again, it would have been nice to see this kind of full-throated criticism four or so years ago (in fairness to Kerry, the NYT is reporting that he’s wanted to give this speech for two years but was restrained by his boss until now). Still, it was pretty frank:

Mr. Kerry usually speaks in the careful words of diplomacy, being careful not to publicly name names, or put choices in the harshest terms. He dropped most of those niceties on Wednesday, especially about Mr. Netanyahu’s government.

“The Israeli prime minister publicly supports a two-state solution, but his current coalition is the most right wing in Israeli history, with an agenda driven by its most extreme elements,” he said. “The result is that policies of this government — which the prime minister himself just described as ‘more committed to settlements than any in Israel’s history’ — are leading in the opposite direction, towards one state.”

And on settlement expansion:

“Let’s be clear: Settlement expansion has nothing to do with Israel’s security; many settlements actually increase the security burden on the IDF [Israel Defense Forces]. And leaders of the settler movement are motivated by ideological imperatives that entirely ignore legitimate Palestinian aspirations.”

Benjamin Netanyahu naturally responded (I’m watching it now hence the lack of a link), with his typical “why are you picking on Israel” tactic, because the once every four years when a US administration speaks frankly about Israel is apparently too often. He complained that the Obama administration has spent more time complaining about settlements than about “stopping Palestinian terror,” which manages to both be a lie and to elide the fact that the settlements help fuel Palestinian violence.


The other candidate for today’s biggest story is the report that Turkey and Russia have agreed on a Syrian ceasefire plan. Except it’s not clear to my admittedly untrained eye where, exactly, this ceasefire is going to take effect. Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported that the deal would “exclude” parts of the country where Syrian government forces are fighting UN-designated terrorist groups, i.e., ISIS and Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. I guess this might mean that the Damascus suburbs are about to get a respite, but Idlib, where JFS is preeminent, is surely not. And, frankly, this is going to be a major test for how much sway Turkey really has with the Syrian rebellion writ large, and I suspect we’re find out that it’s “less than Ankara thinks it has.” If rebel groups don’t abide by the ceasefire then, obviously, there won’t be any ceasefire. Just like we’ve seen countless times before this.

The plan is to implement the ceasefire and then begin talks on a political settlement, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Preliminarily, though, the New Syria appears to be a more federal place, with Bashar al-Assad remaining in power through a new presidential election, in which he would apparently not stand but would be replaced by another Alawite figure. This, presumably, means that the outcome of Syria’s next presidential election would be as engineered as all of Syria’s other presidential elections, but replacing Assad with another Alawite is seen as crucial to getting Iran on board with the plan. Russia would get to play peacemaker under this arrangement, while Turkey would get to be rid of Assad after all and would probably get Russian help in dealing with the YPG. This sounds exactly like the kind of deal that Moscow and Tehran, at a minimum, would criticize harshly if it had been proposed by the US, and it seems pretty fanciful to boot. What happens if Assad, you know, doesn’t agree to step down? What happens if Syrian rebels don’t appreciate having another sham election to replace Assad with a new president handpicked by the Russians and/or Iranians? How are you going to stabilize the country while simultaneously pulverizing the YPG?

The Russian embassy in Damascus was hit twice by mortar shells earlier today. No word on casualties and in fact it’s not even clear the shells exploded; the Russian statement said that “de-mining specialists” are on sight.

Turkey’s al-Bab operation is continuing, with the Turkish military reporting that its forces killed 44 ISIS fighters there today.

With the SDF closing in on Raqqa, The Washington Post’s Liz Sly notes that an actual attack on the city is nevertheless probably “months,” and probably many months, away. Why? Because Washington still has no idea how to assault the city without using the SDF’s Kurdish forces, but for the Kurds to participate in an assault on Raqqa would invite as many problems–both from Turkey and from local residents–as it would solve. There are plans to train 10,000 Arab fighters to lead the attack, but we’re now a few months into the SDF’s slow encirclement of Raqqa and, hey, those are still just plans.


The final bridge spanning the Tigris river between eastern and western Mosul has been destroyed, for what must be the fourth time in the past two months. Coalition airstrikes have hit all five of Mosul’s bridges multiple times, but ISIS keeps repairing the damage just enough to continue moving fighters and materiel from western Mosul into eastern Mosul, where all the fighting is happening and where Iraqi forces are expected to resume a full-scale offensive within days. It’s not clear if the damage done this time is going to stick.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is saying that it will take Iraqi forces three more months to drive ISIS out of the country. This seems wildly optimistic, given that two months into the Mosul operation Iraqi forces haven’t even secured half of the eastern half of the city and given that ISIS fighters could well melt into the Iraqi countryside after the city finally is liberated. Reached for comment, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman scoffed at the Iraqi PM’s comments and said that, in reality, it’s the next six months that “will be critical.”

In humanitarian concerns, hundreds of Iraqi Turkmens have been fleeing fighting between ISIS and the Popular Mobilization Units near Tal Afar on foot, walking for 40 days all the way to the Turkish border. They’re doing this in wintertime and undoubtedly without proper supplies, which makes it a particularly life-threatening trek.


Five people were killed today when a car bomb was detonated at a Communist Party office in the Karakax County region of Xinjiang–the four attackers, who were shot by police, plus one other person. It’s a pretty safe bet that the perpetrators were Uyghur, but it’s not clear yet what group they were with. The Turkistan Islamic Party is the obvious possibility, but it’s worth noting that ISIS has previously expressed a desire to expand into Xinjiang and the TIP itself has had past ties with al-Qaeda (in particular Jabhat al-Nusra).

Last week a minivan drove into a marketplace in Beijing, killing four people in what must have looked pretty similar to known terrorist attacks in Nice and Berlin. Chinese authorities aren’t saying whether the driver acted intentionally and, given the opacity of Chinese media, it’s unlikely we’ll ever actually find out if he did, unless the Chinese government decides to share that information.


An improvised explosive device was set off in the middle of a town fiesta in Hilongos, on the island of Leyte, injuring 23 people. No word on responsibility.

Boko Haram

The commander of Nigeria’s campaign against Boko Haram says that the group may have used some of the kidnapped “Chibok girls” as human shields as it fled the seizure of its (alleged) last major Sambisa Forest base over the weekend. The search for the rest of the girls is ongoing.

The notion that Boko Haram is now without a home base and is on its last legs has undoubtedly been overblown by Muhammadu Buhari’s government, which needs the political boost. The group has already engaged in new terror attacks since the Sambisa base was taken, and lest we forget, Boko Haram is no longer one organization. The Sambisa operation reportedly targeted Abubakar Shekau’s branch of the group, but the other, ISIS-approved, branch would presumably have been unaffected. Still, 31 Boko Haram fighters in Diffa, Niger yesterday…just surrendered. That may not mean anything, but on the other hand it may be a sign that the group is really fraying.

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