Conflict update: January 6 2017


Here’s one terrifying side-effect of the Mosul campaign that, to be honest, I hadn’t really thought much about:

With the launch of the second phase of the Mosul operations Dec. 29, tens of bodies of killed Islamic State (IS) fighters were strewn across the streets in the neighborhoods of al-Salam, al-Intisar, al-Wihda, Palestine and al-Quds in eastern Mosul, as was the case in neighborhoods that were previously liberated.

Residents do not want to bury the bodies for fear of them carrying explosives or being infected with diseases, or for fear of being affiliated with the dead fighters.

The streets of the liberated areas are filled with bodies, some of which are now mere skeletons from dogs feeding off them. The bloated bodies of other fighters have been covered by residents with pieces of cloth. Dead animals that lost their lives in the fighting also lie in the streets.

The smell of death fills the air in eastern Mosul, forcing passers-by to cover their noses while running errands in the markets.

Sounds lovely, really.

At least the smell is hovering over an offensive that looks to be making significant progress again. For the first time in the operation, Iraqi forces today were able to enter the city from the north. That may not seem like much, but it’s a pretty big milestone. The northern front was one of three planned fronts in the east Mosul operation, but it, along with the southern front, had gone nowhere until today, leaving the eastern front to take the brunt of ISIS’s concentrated resistance. If things are moving again in the north, combined with a renewed push from the east and a new push from the southeast, then ISIS is going to be forced to defend on three fronts, and that bodes very well for the Iraqis in the rest of the east Mosul phase of the fighting. Iraqi counter-terrorism forces even felt confident enough to attempt a night raid last night, which seems to have gone well.

PBS Newshour did a major piece a couple of days ago on the disappearance of men and boys from refugee camps around Mosul. In an effort to ensure that no ISIS fighters are escaping by joining the displaced, Iraqi forces are picking up male refugees for investigation. This seems…almost reasonable, actually, except that there seems to be virtually no transparency to the process, to the families of these people are forced to surmise what’s happened and hope that they get to see their loved ones again. And with the number of people fleeing Mosul, the Iraqi justice system is taking weeks to investigate each case, and with the lack of transparency about detainees’ whereabouts comes a similar lack of transparency about the investigative process. Nobody knows what kind of evidence is being considered and who is considering it. There are many men and boys who remained in Mosul without signing on to fight for ISIS, and many others who were forced to join ISIS and who may have done little or nothing to tangibly contribute to the group’s war effort, so it’s fundamentally important, not to mention just, that they all get a fair hearing and due process.


There are conflicting reports about whether or not a ceasefire has been reached in the Wadi Barada region near Damascus, where the Syrian government has been battling with rebels over springs that supply a significant portion of the capital’s water supply. The government, per a news outlet affiliated with Hezbollah, claims an agreement on a temporary ceasefire has been reached, but rebel leaders are denying it. The fighting around Wadi Barada is not only the biggest single threat to the ceasefire that’s supposed to be in effect throughout Syria, and to peace talks scheduled for later this month in Kazakhstan, but also, and more critically, it’s threatening the lives of people in Damascus who are critically short of clean water. Jan Egeland, who runs a humanitarian task force on Syria for the UN, referred to the damage to the water supply as “sabotage” and called it a war crime, which means the UN believes it was a deliberate act. The UN won’t say who deliberately damaged the system, but it makes very little sense for the government to have sabotaged its own capital city’s water supply. Still, rebels in the area maintain that it was government airstrikes that did the damage, while the government says its airstrikes are justified by the presence of Jabhat Fatah al-Sham in the area–the rebels deny that.

Speaking of JFS, today it accused the US-led coalition of conducting an airstrike that killed Sheikh Younes Shoueib, a member of its leadership council, and his son. This would mark the second US strike against JFS this week. Couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of al-Qaeda affiliates.

Russia began moving its aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, to return home from the eastern Mediterranean today, easily the biggest drawdown in Russian forces in Syria since they intervened back in 2015. There are undoubtedly practical reasons for the withdrawal–it costs money to keep fleets at sea, and the old, mechanically feeble Kuznetsov is probably in need of a whole mess of repairs–but I think, with those Kazakh peace talks in the offering, that this should also be taken as a bit of a message from Moscow to Damascus that it’s time to start talking to the rebels. Russia intervened in Syria to save Bashar al-Assad’s hide and to reestablish themselves as a major world power, but I think they feel like they’ve done those things, and they aren’t particularly interested in expending blood and treasure on Assad’s quest to thoroughly defeat every last rebel. Assad hasn’t always been responsive to, shall we say, suggestions from Moscow in the past, so this is a way to let him know that Russia isn’t sticking around indefinitely.

In eastern Syria, today the Syrian Democratic Forces reportedly captured Qalaat Jaabar, a 12th century castle built (or rebuilt, there was probably already something on the site) by Nur al-Din Zengi, the Crusader menace who was ultimately (though not really wittingly) responsible for putting Saladin in power in Egypt. The SDF’s next target is probably going to be the nearby town of Tabqa. Speaking of the SDF, Turkey’s defense minister, Fikri Işık, today reiterated his government’s long-standing complaint/plaintive whine about the US support for the predominantly Kurdish army. Işık says the US is giving weapons to the YPG, which Turkey views as indistinguishable from the PKK (they’re related, but Ankara purposefully conflates them even more than that). Washington says it’s only arming Arab fighters within the SDF, not Kurdish ones, which is such a ridiculous bit of bullshit I’m surprised anybody can actually say it without having to wear a nose plug. “Uh, yeah, sure, we’re only arming Steve here, but the guys fighting on either side of him don’t get any help from us at all.” Come on. Işık also said that Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces are fighting “street battles” with ISIS in al-Bab, which suggests that city may be liberated fairly soon.


18 people have so far been detained in the dragnet following yesterday’s bomb and gun attack in Izmir, and the Turkish government is calling the PKK responsible.

Reuters reporter Humeyra Pamuk investigated the predominantly Central Asian neighborhood in Istanbul where the suspected attacker in the New Year’s Eve Reina Nightclub attack is believed to have resided for some time. Long-time residents of the neighborhood say that recent arrivals, heavily influenced by Wahhabism, don’t share their appreciation for Turkey and often wind up fighting with jihadists in Iraq and/or Syria, then returning.


The Pakistani government has apparently delivered a “dossier” to new UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that purports to document India’s role in “fomenting terrorism.”


Authorities have killed Nurul Islam Marzan, the man they’re calling the “mastermind” of last year’s attack on a cafe in the city of Dhaka, which killed 20 people. ISIS claimed responsibility for that attack, but Bangladeshi authorities have maintained that it was carried out by Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which has no ties to ISIS as far as anyone seems to know. Marzan was known to be a leader in JMB.

The Gambia

Garba Shehu, spokesman for Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, said today that West African leaders are going to decide tomorrow what to do about Yahya Jammeh’s ongoing insistence that recent Gambian elections must have been flawed because he lost. Jammeh has until January 19 to vacate the premises, but with new that he’s been recruiting mercenaries, if the rest of West Africa is planning a military intervention they might want to get started sooner rather than later.


Those West African leaders will meet to discuss Jammeh while attending the inauguration of new Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo tomorrow. Ghana’s elections last month weren’t without drama, but in the end Akufo-Addo was declared the winner and the incumbent, John Mahama, graciously conceded. So it can be done, President Jammeh, just FYI.


Buhari may be involving himself in what happens in The Gambia, but he better be paying attention to things back home. The Niger Delta Avengers, who had declared a ceasefire last summer, released a statement on their website today in which they said they’re preparing fighters for another round of violent action against the Nigerian government, arguing that “it has been evidently clear that the Nigerian state is not ready for any form of dialogue and negotiation.”


Two Namibian tribes, the Herero and Nama, have sued Germany in US court over the 1904-1907 genocide carried out by the German state against their people. German colonists systematically took land from these tribes starting in the late 19th century and began brutally mistreating them. When the tribes finally revolted in 1904, over 100,000 of them were killed by the Germans, who first blockaded the tribes in a desert, where many starved to death or died of dehydration, and then shuffled survivors off to concentration camps, where many thousands more died amid forced labor and forced participation in medical experiments. If this sounds a little bit like a dry run for the Holocaust, well, many historians view it as exactly that. The German government has apologized for the genocide but refuses to consider compensating descendants of the victims, hence the lawsuit. And, like magic, suddenly Berlin is suggesting it might revisit the reparations issue.

A group of Herero POWs in 1904 (Wikimedia | Bundesarchiv)


Breitbart News has been reporting that a “mob” of Muslim refugees attacked police and set fire to Germany’s oldest church, in the city of Dortmund, on New Year’s Eve. Since I started this by noting that it was Breitbart, you’ve hopefully already concluded that none of that actually happened. Somehow a German media report about some rowdy behavior–though actually less rowdy than past NYEs, per police–got sent through the fake news machine and came out as a Muslim mob burning down the oldest church in Germany. Even that last part is a lie–it’s not the oldest church in Germany, and though it did briefly catch fire due to a firework landing in a net on the roof (which could very well have been a stray accident), the church wasn’t damaged.


The government of Kosovo says it’s “reviewing” its diplomatic ties to Serbia after French police arrested former Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj on Thursday on a Serbian warrant. Haradinaj was a rebel commander during the 1998-1999 Kosovo War, and he’s accused by Serbian authorities of committing acts of ethnic cleansing against Serbian civilians. French authorities must now decide whether to extradite Haradinaj to Serbia to face charges or let him go. Kosovo and Serbia have been trying to normalize relations with one another so that both can apply for EU membership (the EU won’t accept either until that happens), but this isn’t going to help that process along.

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