Conflict update: January 10 2017

The Ritz-Carlton Moscow

It’s possible I’ll be able to formulate some thoughts about this as soon as I’m done laughing about it, but for now let me just say one thing. While I have absolutely no problem believing that the Russian government has dirt, possibly serious dirt, on our president-elect, the story that Buzzfeed ran this evening (no link, this is a fucking family blog goddammit) is just too hysterical, and too unsubstantiated, to give much credence without a lot of supporting evidence. That said, I think the folks at Lawfare, who are not given to hair-on-fire conspiracies, have the right idea in that these allegations are not proven (and given that probably shouldn’t have been reported), but they are serious and should be taken seriously.


The UN says that more than 135,000 people have fled Mosul since the Iraqi offensive to retake the city began in October, and hundreds/thousands of others have had to be evacuated to hospitals because they’ve been wounded in the fighting. Still, Iraqi forces continue to make steady progress toward liberating the eastern side of the city.

On the downside, whatever deal the Turkish and Iraqi governments appeared to have been circling over the presence of Turkish troops in Bashiqa doesn’t seem to have taken, because there was Iraqi PM Haider al-Abadi today, saying that Iraqi-Turkish relations can’t “move forward” until Turkey withdraws its soldiers from Iraqi territory, and Turkey still doesn’t seem inclined to take that step.


Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, chatted on the phone today about how important it was that their Syrian ceasefire be preserved, per the Russian foreign ministry. Sooooo, good luck with that? Speaking of the ceasefire, and its accompanying planned peace talks, Syria’s PYD won’t be attending. It’s certainly no surprise that a peace conference organized by Turkey won’t be including the PYD, but it is yet another reason to think that this whole thing isn’t going to accomplish very much. Syria’s Kurds are going to have to be a part of negotiations over a final peace deal, unless Ankara plans on killing all of them, and I don’t think that’s in the cards.

In addition to the ongoing fighting in Wadi Barada, the Syrian army has also been pressing to capture the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Douma, the biggest rebel-held area in the vicinity of the capital.

The US-led anti-ISIS coalition announced today that it will be conducting more regular air reconnaissance missions in support of Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield, and may also begin conducting airstrikes in conjunction with the operation in al-Bab. That’s going to put US and Russian aircraft in tight proximity, since both countries will now be participating in the al-Bab offensive, but it is something for which Turkey has been agitating. In unfortunate news, the bodies of two Turkish soldiers who were captured by ISIS in late November, and apparently killed at some point after that, have been returned to Turkey, according to Turkish state media.


Iranian leaders have apparently opted not to retaliate in any way over last month’s Congressional vote to extend the Iran Sanctions Act. Extending the act doesn’t mean much practically, as it’s still within the president’s discretion to waive sanctions (which the Obama administration has been doing as part of the nuclear deal. Donald Trump seems like a fair bet to revisit that policy, but interestingly the Iranians seem to have reached this decision after a meeting between its representatives and representatives from the P5+1 nations in Vienna. Obviously that meeting included representatives from Russia, which is presumably hoping to have some sway on Trump’s foreign policy. Maybe they convinced the Iranians that everything will be OK.

In other Iranian foreign policy news, Tehran said on Monday that it’s ready to sit down with Saudi officials to make sure that there’s no repeat of last year’s Hajj, when would-be Iranian pilgrims were prevented from going due to the rancor between the two Gulf rivals.

Hassan Rouhani is increasingly surrounded by corruption allegations, some of which seem, at least to outside observation, like they might actually have some legs to them. Regardless of their veracity, though, these hints of wrongdoing are undoubtedly going to impact his reelection campaign.


Israeli soldiers killed 32 year old Muhammad Salhi today in a raid on the Faraa refugee camp in the Occupied West Bank. Salhi was, of course, not the target of the raid, but he must have shook his fist menacingly or something because he was reportedly shot five times. Meanwhile, in response to that Palestinian truck attack in East Jerusalem on Sunday, Israeli police have blockaded the Jabal Mukaber neighborhood of the city, while relatives of the attacker are denying that he was influenced by ISIS, which seems to be the government’s prevailing theory.

Meanwhile, in news that is both too little and far too late, President Obama told Israeli media today that ongoing Israeli settlement expansion is going to lead to a worsening situation both in terms of the Palestinian issue and in terms of the US-Israel relationship. And Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to Paris on January 15 to attend a Middle East peace conference that has already been totally disavowed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.


A would-be suicide bomber was killed before he could carry out his attack in the southern city of Gaziantep earlier today. The bomber’s target was reportedly the city’s police headquarters.


Two Taliban attacks in Kabul, near the Afghan parliament building, killed 38 people and wounded another 70. In claiming responsibility for the attacks, the Taliban said they were targeting Afghan intelligence officials. The attacks were set up as a “double-tap” strike–first a suicide bomber blew himself up, and then a car bomb was detonated as first responders were arriving at the scene. It was kind of a shitty day in Afghanistan overall, to be honest. Eight people were killed in a bombing targeting a meeting of tribal leaders in Lashkar Gah, and seven people were killed, and many others wounded including the UAE ambassador to Afghanistan, in another attack in Kandahar. Neither of those attacks have been claimed, but both look like probable Taliban operations.

Afghan officials are growing more alarmed at Iran’s increasing (and increasingly open) support for the Taliban. This is a phenomenon that’s been going on for some time now, going all the way back to the US invasion, but it’s still hard to accept the partnership, given that after 9/11 Iran was practically champing at the bit to help America, of all countries, do away with the Taliban. But with the Afghan government still mostly powerless and ISIS’s arrival in Central and South Asia turning the Taliban into the clear lesser of two evils, it’s not that hard to see why Iran is stepping up its support for the Taliban in what is very much an alliance of convenience.


Human Rights Watch is calling on the Pakistani government to explain the disappearances of four human rights activists and bloggers who have all gone missing in the past week. Pakistani authorities deny that the four have been picked up by the government or its intelligence services, and it’s possible that they’ve been snatched by the Taliban or some other extremist group, but it’s still incumbent on Islamabad to figure out what’s going on.

North Korea

In a news briefing today, US Defense Secretary Ash Carter clarified earlier remarks about the possibility that the US would shoot down a North Korean ICBM test to say that it would only do so if the missile were deemed a potential threat to the US or its allies.


Just after I posted this originally, I saw that Taiwan has scrambled its air force and navy in response to China’s decision to sail its aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait. China and Taiwan have had no diplomatic contact since last summer, and the recent phone call between Donald Trump and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has only ratcheted up Beijing’s irritation. This comes after China flew a bomber around the South China Sea, which it claims over pretty much everybody else’s objections, over the weekend.


Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is sending an envoy to Bangladesh in an effort to convince Dhaka not to get on her back about the whole Rohingya genocide thing the way that Indonesia and Malaysia have. God, it’s like you win one Peace Prize and suddenly you’re supposed to not systematically eradicate a vulnerable ethnic minority or something! Very unfair!


The State Department has added a group called Jamaah Ansharut Daulah, a relatively new group of Indonesian extremists who have pledged themselves to ISIS, to its list of designated terrorist groups.

Ivory Coast

President Alassane Ouattara named close ally Amadou Gon Coulibaly as his new prime minister today, and named former prime minister Daniel Kablan Duncan as vice president. Ivory Coast didn’t have a VP until constitutional changes voted on late last year made it so, and I suppose this leaves Duncan as the 75 year old Ouattara’s eventual successor–except that Duncan is himself 73. Meanwhile, all the new promotions are nice, but those soldiers who mutinied over the weekend are waiting for the bonuses they say they’ve now been promised twice–once in the normal course of business, and again this weekend to get them to stop mutinying–and may be ready to mutiny again if something doesn’t happen soon.

The Gambia

The Gambia’s Supreme Court postponed a hearing on Yahya Jammeh’s challenge to last month’s election results until next week, saying that Jammeh’s party hadn’t yet presented its petition to election winner Adama Barrow’s party. Also, there’s the tiny problem that the “court” is actually just one chief (by default, I guess) justice, so it’s not clear that it, or he, can actually hear the case until more justices are appointed. Who gets to appoint them? And what happens to the presidency in the meantime? Who knows?


It was a real banner day for US-Russia relations. In addition to the aforementioned and totally insane leak (no pun intended, although I wish it had been) about Russia’s supposed blackmail file on our president elect, Washington and Moscow were sparring all over the place. At the UN, in the midst of an address by new UN boss Antonio Guterres to the Security Council, the Russian and US delegations sniped at each other over who loves national sovereignty more: the country that invaded Iraq with no justification and has meddled in civil wars all over the world, or the country that annexed part of its neighbor a couple of years ago and has also meddled in civil wars all over the world. Two real big believers in sovereignty right there. US ambassador Samantha Power also unloaded on Russia for its Syria campaign, though that’s pretty much boilerplate language for her these days.

Speaking of Syria, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu shot back at Ash Carter, who said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday that Russia’s contribution to the fight against ISIS in Syria has been “virtually zero.” Shoygu said that the US has done less than zero, and also pointed out that he was actually made of rubber, while Ash Carter’s body appeared to be made up of a glue-like substance.

Finally a bipartisan group of ten US senators introduced legislation to make Nickelback the national rock band declare hot dogs the national vegetable sanction Russia over a whole mess of shit, from cyberwarfare to Ukraine to Syria, which would put the onus on President Trump (still gives me an involuntary shudder) to waive them and thereby expose himself as an agent of Moscow, showering himself in golden favors, if you will, from his master, Vladimir Putin.

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