Conflict update: January 14 2017


Iraqi commanders are saying that their forces have seized control of Mosul University from ISIS, a major step toward the full liberation of eastern Mosul. ISIS had been using the university as a base of operations, so now that’s denied to them, and the campus sits in a tactically significant position overlooking a big chunk of the eastern bank of the Tigris. The university operation went a little faster than I would have guessed, in part because the campus is devoid of civilians, which allowed the Iraqis and their coalition air cover to go a little more all-out than they’ve been doing when fighting in more populated areas of the city. That’s also meant that the burden on field hospitals on the outskirts of the city has been lessened over the past couple of days.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari has been working on something that could do more for Iraqi security than anything short of liberating Mosul: stabilizing relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Baghdad offered Jaafari as a mediator to the Iranians last year after Riyadh broke off diplomatic ties between the two countries, and he’s apparently been carrying messages between the two governments. His efforts may have helped secure a minor breakthrough earlier this week, when the Iranians and Saudis agreed to discuss arrangements for Iranian pilgrims on this year’s Hajj.

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Ibrahim al-Jaafari (R) sitting next to Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at a memorial service for former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani earlier this week (Wikimedia)


The Syrian High Negotiations Committee announced today that it supports the peace talks scheduled to happen in Astana, Kazakhstan, starting on January 23. They said this despite the fact that new fighting in Idlib and near Damascus continued to put the lie to the notion that the country is under a ceasefire leading up to the talks, and also despite the fact that you’d be hard pressed to find five people currently in Syria who give two shits what the High Negotiations Committee has to say about pretty much anything. The HNC is supposed to be the main political body underlying the rebellion, but the main groups doing most of the rebel fighting at this point are forces–Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, etc.–that have nothing to do with the HNC. Their endorsement of these talks means very little in any practical sense.

Speaking of the Astana talks, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu confirmed today that the United States has been invited to participate after all.

To the east, ISIS has launched a major attack on the city of Deir Ezzor, which drew a response from the Syrian air force. Deir Ezzor is the only city in eastern Syria still under government control, but it’s been besieged by ISIS off and on for a couple of years now. It’s likely that fighters who fled Mosul are part of the renewed ISIS offensive here.


Tomorrow’s (or later today’s, I guess, time zones and all) meeting on the Israel-Palestine situation in Paris seems intended not so much to make progress on a peace plan but to send a message to Donald Trump. Trump’s administration looks ready to be the most obsequious US administration yet in terms of allowing Israel liberty to thoroughly abuse the Palestinians, and it’s hoped that the gathering will show Trump that much of the world is united in support of a two-state solution. That’s…unlikely to make much difference to Trump, and since Europe has so many problems of its own it’s unlikely to add the plight of the Palestinians to its to-do list in any meaningful way.


Protesters have taken to the streets of Manama, angry over reports that three Shiʿa Bahrainis convicted of carrying out a bomb attack in 2014 are about to be executed. The three men insist that they’re innocent and human rights groups claim that they were tortured into confessing. Relations between Bahrain’s Shiʿa majority and its Sunni rulers are usually frayed under the best of circumstances, and these protests may portend something more serious to come.

Saudi Arabia

The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, a country that is very modern and tolerant and in no way contributes to Islamic extremism and instability, said in his weekly address that movies and music are the devil. This is problematic, insofar as Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad b. Salman’s “Vision 2030” economic development plan calls for the development of arts and entertainment venues in order to create a bunch of part-time ticket-taker jobs for Saudis who are going to be livid when the government cut off their cradle-to-grave welfare benefits modernize the Saudi state. Failure to develop arts and entertainment could lead to vast numbers of young Saudis taking up arms against an oppressive and embarrassing hereditary monarchy that can no longer afford to buy their quiescence a failure to modernize. Modernization is the key.

The Philippines

President Rodrigo Duterte said in a speech on Saturday that he’s ordered his military to fire at will upon would-be kidnappers in Philippine waters, even if it means killing their would-be kidnap victims. This seems like an odd way to fight the problem of kidnapping, but then I’m pretty sure that Duterte, a confessed serial killer, just likes the idea of more people being killed.


Southern and western Libya, including Tripoli, are being hit by a massive blackout. The good news, I guess, is that Khalifa Haftar’s army hasn’t blown up a power station or anything. The most likely explanation is that the closure of a gas pipeline last week has kept needed diesel fuel from reaching the power plant. That seems easier to fix than something more violent…but then again it’s not actually getting fixed.


Protests over lack of jobs and a sluggish economy that started a couple of days ago in southern Tunisia have now spread to several towns and cities across the country, all in time to commemorate the sixth anniversary of the Arab Spring movement that ousted long time president/dictator Zine El Abidine b. Ali. In the city of Gafsa, protesters threw stones at the convoy of visiting President Beji Caid Essebsi. Tunisia has been the model of a country that went through the Arab Spring and actually came out of it a functioning, stable democracy, but its continuing economic struggles are threatening to unravel all of that.

The Gambia

Actual, elected Gambian President Adama Barrow is in Mali to participate in a joint French-West African summit on how to handle Yahya Jammeh’s continued refusal to leave office. The likelihood of a military intervention is getting higher seemingly by the day.


Tensions between Serbia and Kosovo are escalating over, of all things, a train:

Kosovo police blocked the entry on Saturday of a train from Serbia painted in the colors of the Serbian flag and with the words “Kosovo is Serbia” printed down the side, in a standoff seen as a test for the tiny Balkan country.

Kosovo President Hashim Thaci told an online paper he had ordered police special units to the border to halt the progress of the “provocative” train, which had not been cleared by the Pristina authorities to enter the country.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić says he’s ordered the train to turn around before it crosses into Kosovo, but as the Serbian government doesn’t formally recognize any border between Serbia and Kosovo, you can see why this is a bit of a contentious issue. It’s clear these two countries have a ways to go to normalize relations, which both need to do before they’ll be considered for EU membership. By the time they patch things up, it’s anybody’s guess whether there will still be an EU that anybody actually wants to join.

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