Conflict update: January 13 2017 (UPDATED)

OK, so, it’s been a long day and I’m getting started on this very late, so no time to dilly dally. Of course, if I don’t finish this by midnight I’ll just post it and then keep adding stuff to it after midnight, per my usual routine.

Oh, you didn’t know I did that? I’m revealing trade secrets.


This was not a super day for refugee rights. First, I think on Wednesday I badly undersold the plight currently facing migrants who are trapped in the Balkans because no European country will take them in. These people are in a desperate situation:

Thousands of refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan are enduring “appalling” conditions in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, and have been left camped in temperatures that have dropped well below freezing, aid groups have said.

Serbia is currently hosting an estimated 7,200 refugees, according to the UNHCR. Although the majority are being sheltered in government-run camps, aid workers estimate that around 2,000 are still on the streets or sheltering in an abandoned warehouse behind the main bus station in Belgrade.

The International Rescue Committee estimates “several hundred” of those trapped are children. One of those is 17-year-old Ajmal. The teenager has been living in Belgrade for a month after making the tough journey from Afghanistan.

“At the moment it is very difficult here, my life is very hard here,” Ajmal (not his real name) told BuzzFeed News over the phone from Serbia. “It is very cold, I have so many problems with different things: the food, the clothing, everything.”

Ajmal continued: “I sleep where I can. I am just homeless here. I don’t have a home or a tent to sleep here, it is very difficult. We are making fire every night but I can’t keep myself warm.”

The teenager attempted the border from Turkey three times. He’s desperate to move on, and to continue studying to be a doctor or an engineer to “help my country and all people.” Ajmal was forced to flee Afghanistan after his school near Kabul was targeted by insurgents. “I didn’t want to leave but I couldn’t learn,” he said. “If I go back, they will kill me.”

It is utterly appalling that Western society can allow this to happen and not even blink. We’re constantly told that American foreign policy has failed because we’re not bombing enough parts of the world at the moment, or not bombing them frequently enough. Bullshit. This is the failure.

Second, the EU is continuing to try, and fail, to cut a deal with the Libyan government (I’m using that term very loosely) to prevent more migrants from crossing the Mediterranean. This is because the EU would prefer that these people be stuck in Libya, a country in chaos, torn apart by a civil war that the EU helped cause, than that they sully the pristine shores of Europe with their gross refugee cooties. The irony here is that even if the EU could get a deal for the Libyan government to help it screw these migrants over, it wouldn’t mean anything because the government that the Europeans have helped to install in Libya doesn’t even control Tripoli, let alone the rest of the country.

Third, the Obama administration officially ended the “wet foot/dry foot” policy, which said that Cuban refugees trying to flee the island would be turned back if they were intercepted in the water but given asylum if they made it to American land. Now anybody attempting to get to the US from Cuba will be treated like anybody trying to get to the US from anywhere else–i.e., not well. Whatever you may think of America’s Cuba policy, which has been impossibly fucked up for decades and is only now starting to unfuck itself, this is a decision that makes it harder for Cuban refugees to find refuge.

Finally, in Myanmar–oh yes, you knew this was coming–4000 Myanmar civilians have been blocked by Chinese authorities from taking refuge in China after attempting to flee fighting between the government and separatist rebels in the northern state of Kachin. An estimated 23,000 people have been displaced in Kachin since fighting broke out a few weeks ago. Also, and here’s the part you knew was coming, representatives from Bangladesh and Myanmar have begun negotiations on how best to continue eradicating the Rohingya. Should the 65,000 Rohingya who have fled Myanmar in the past three months stay in ramshackle camps in Bangladesh, the country that doesn’t want them? Or should they be sent back to ramshackle villages in Myanmar, the country that’s actively trying to slaughter them? Choices, choices.


The biggest news here is something that is still developing, which is Russia’s decision to invite the United States–Donald Trump’s United States–to its January 23 Syrian peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. Moscow is refusing to confirm this, but it seems pretty clear that an invitation has been made, and the reason I note that it was made to Donald Trump’s America is because it wasn’t made through regular diplomatic channels:

Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. invited the Trump administration to Syrian peace talks during a phone call in December — on the same day the Obama administration announced sanctions against Russia in retaliation for its hacking during the U.S. election — a Trump spokesperson said Friday.

Incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak extended the invitation to the talks, which are scheduled for later this month, during a phone call with President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming National Security Advisor Michael Flynn on December 29th, the day the U.S. issued sanctions and expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the country.

You know how people have been using the phrase “this is not normal” a lot lately? Well, this is not normal. That Flynn, as the incoming National Security Advisor, would have contact with Russian officials during the transition is one thing, but for those contacts to involve some explicit back channel dealing on foreign policy matters that should still be the purview of the current administration is something else. It’s unclear whether they talked about anything else–lifting US sanctions against Russia, for example, that would have been even further out of bounds, but I’d say chances are fairly good that they did.

Washington’s involvement at Astana presents an interesting new wrinkle, given that the Trump administration’s Syria policy is still very unclear (they’ve made statements critical of the rebels, and Trump wants to get along with Vladimir Putin, but at the same time his national security team is probably the most anti-Iran national security team that’s been assembled by an American president since 1979). I’m not sure it will matter though, if Turkey is going to renew its objections to Bashar al-Assad remaining in power. There won’t be a deal without Assad remaining in place at least through some kind of transition, and there’s no reason to believe that any transition could actually work with Assad still in place. It’s kind of a catch-22.

On the plus side, a deal finally seems to have been reached to allow government forces to move into the Wadi Barada to secure and repair Damascus’s water supply. At this point the only positive news from Syria is humanitarian, and this means that ~5.5 million people are going to be able to have water again soon. Also good news? An estimated 50 Jabhat Fatah al-Sham fighters have been killed in a stepped-up coalition air campaign against the group since the beginning of the year. It’s not entirely clear why there’s been this flurry of strikes against JFS, but some possibilities include: its higher recent visibility has made it an easier target, it’s been infiltrated by informants, and Turkey is finally sharing its intel on the group with Russia and the US.

Elsewhere, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which to this point has refused to publicly name specific individuals involved in the use of chemical weapons in Syria, has reportedly compiled a list of such individuals that includes the Assads:

Now a list has been produced of individuals whom the investigators have linked to a series of chlorine bomb attacks in 2014-15 – including Assad, his younger brother Maher and other high-ranking figures – indicating the decision to use toxic weapons came from the very top, according to a source familiar with the inquiry.

The Assads could not be reached for comment but a Syrian government official said accusations that government forces had used chemical weapons had “no basis in truth”. The government has repeatedly denied using such weapons during the civil war, which is almost six years old, saying all the attacks highlighted by the inquiry were the work of rebels or the Islamic State militant group.

The list, which has been seen by Reuters but has not been made public, was based on a combination of evidence compiled by the U.N.-OPCW team in Syria and information from Western and regional intelligence agencies, according to the source, who declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the issue.

The OPCW’s findings would have to be referred to the International Criminal Court to have any impact, and then the ICC would have to be allowed to open a case, and then at some point Assad would have to be brought to The Hague, and…well, it’s unlikely things will ever get to that point.


Mosul as of January 12 (Wikimedia | Kami888)

Heavy fighting has been reported on the campus of Mosul University, as Iraqi forces have begun their assault there. They’ve also advanced all the way to the Tigris bank at the three southernmost bridges spanning the river, which leaves two more to go. If the university is taken quickly then it may only be a matter of a few more days before all of eastern Mosul is back in Iraqi hands.


Authorities have arrested two Uyghurs, both Chinese nationals, in connection with the New Year’s Eve Reina Nightclub attack in Istanbul. It’s not clear if either of them was the actual attacker, but it is believed that the attacker was Uyghur.

The Turkish parliament approved measures today that will allow the president to belong to a political party (openly) and to issue decrees. These are two big steps toward instituting the presidential system that Tayyip Erdoğan is after.


The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is calling for more aid to go to Yemen’s farmers, which is just another way of noting that the country is being starved to death. Maybe the Saudis can start putting seed packets and bags of fertilizer on their cluster bombs before they drop them.


The US is taking steps to ease or maybe end its 20 year embargo on Sudan, because the country has apparently been helpful in combating ISIS. Let the word go out to all you would-be génocidaires out there: kill as many people as you want, and if the US gets angry, just make sure you drop Washington a little useful intel now and again and pretty soon it’ll all be water under the bridge. Remember: the United States cares about human rights only insofar as they can be a useful club with which to beat uncooperative nations. We have no principled stance on the issue.

Ivory Coast

A government delegation headed to the city of Bouaké earlier today to try to negotiate a final settlement to the dispute that caused many Ivorian soldiers to mutiny over the weekend. I wonder how that went?

Heavy gunfire broke out briefly in Ivory Coast’s second city on Friday during talks between the leaders of an army mutiny last week and government ministers seeking to resolve a dispute over bonuses, witnesses and negotiators for the soldiers said.

The unrest raised concerns of a renewal of the two-day revolt, which began in Bouake a week ago before spreading to cities and towns across the West African country, forcing the government to yield to many of the soldiers’ demands.

Negotiators for the mutineers, most of them ex-rebel fighters integrated into the army, said the shooting was simply soldiers venting their frustration after they accused a government delegation headed by Defence Minister Alain-Richard Donwahi of reneging on the earlier deal.

“They don’t want to pay our bonuses. That’s why our men were shooting, to show they weren’t happy,” said one of the mutiny’s leaders, who asked not to be named.

He said that the gunfire later subsided and the talks had restarted. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Hey, I don’t want to be Debbie Downer here or anything, but you say that gunfire subsided, and the talks resumed, but soldiers have now taken over the roads into and out of the city of Korhogo, which seems like it might be a bad sign.

UPDATE: About 15 minutes after this piece went up, Al Jazeera reported that the talks in Bouaké have reached a successful conclusion. The mutinying troops are going to be paid $8000 bonuses, which I guess could be seen as rewarding lawlessness, but considering that the soldiers mutinied over consistently low pay and past bonuses that the government had promised and then never delivered, I’d say the moral hazard here is pretty slight.

The Gambia

The African Union is joining the Economic Community of West African Nations (ECOWAS) in pushing for Yahya Jammeh to leave office on January 19 as he should. The AU says that it will simply stop recognizing Jammeh as president on the 19th, no matter what he does or tries to do. Meanwhile, the Nigerian army is reportedly preparing an 800 man military unit to invade The Gambia if necessary–although publicly they’re denying that any such preparations are underway.


At least six people were killed and 14 injured in suicide bombings in a marketplace in Madagali today, which is the second or third time that town has been hit by Boko Haram in the past couple of months. Madagali is familiar territory for Boko Haram as it was formerly part of their “state” in northeastern Nigeria, and its position close to the border with Cameroon makes it vulnerable to attacks from Boko Haram units who may have crossed into Cameroon to escape government attacks in Nigeria.

In addition to the ongoing war against Boko Haram and the upsurge in unrest in the Niger Delta, the Nigerian government is also dealing with an increase in violence in the central Nigerian state of Kaduna, where the country’s northern Muslim and southern Christian populations come together. The two populations have been clashing over territory since October, and the death toll is now in the hundreds.


Hey, here’s some good news: if you’re a journalist in Tanzania who occasional writes stories that aren’t entirely favorable to the government, you’re not going to get thrown in prison just yet:

Tanzanian President John Magufuli said on Friday the “days were numbered” for newspapers deemed to incite dissent, comments that will add to opposition concern that his government is further narrowing the space for public criticism.

Magufuli, nicknamed “the bulldozer” for pushing through his policies, has won some praise from Western donors for an anti-corruption drive and cutting wasteful public spending, but opponents accuse him of increasingly undermining democracy by curbing dissent and stifling free speech.

The government declared opposition protest illegal last year. Some privately-owned newspapers have published articles criticizing Magufuli’s handling of the economy and some governance issues.

“We will not allow Tanzania to be a dumpyard for inciting (newspaper) content. This will not happen under my administration,” Magufuli told a rally in the northwestern town of Shinyanga.

He accused two newspapers, which he did not name, of seeking to cause trouble. “Whenever you read them, they are full of inciting content … their days are numbered,” he said.

“Inciting content” is a great standard for deciding which newspapers should be allowed to stay in business, because it’s crystal clear and not in any way vulnerable to being abused by an authoritarian government. Thanks to a law passed in November, Magufuli’s government has the authority to shut down media outlets deemed to have violated their licenses, and a set of cybersecurity laws passed in 2015 have, among other things, criminalized “insulting the president.” Sounds like a great recipe for a free press.

United Kingdom

Parliament is insisting that Prime Minister Theresa May explain how she plans to approach Brexit talks with the EU (which are to begin in March) no later than the middle of next month. May has argued that she shouldn’t do this because she hasn’t got the foggiest idea how to approach those talks it will tip her hand in advance of the negotiations, but politicians, the business community, and, if anybody cares, the British people are all a little disconcerted at how little she’s said so far.


Reunification talks have hit the snag I kind of suspected that they would hit, with Turkish President Erdoğan showing his reluctance to commit to withdrawing Turkish forces from the island if and when it is reunified. Greece, and Greek Cypriots, are resistant to continued Turkish military presence after reunification, but Erdoğan is insisting that Turkey must remain the guarantor of Turkish Cypriot security. Even if he wanted to be flexible on this point, domestic Turkish politics–specifically Erdoğan’s need to court nationalist voters for his constitutional referendum–force him to take a pretty hard line. At the very least, Erdoğan will need to get Greece’s agreement to withdraw its forces from the island before Turkey will agree to the same, and even then it may be a no-sell for him.

You’ll note, though, that when Turkish and Greek Cypriots were talking to each other, everything apparently went swimmingly. It was only after the rest of the world got involved–Greece, Turkey, the EU, Britain–that the talks started to fall apart. There’s got to be a lesson in there somewhere.

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