Conflict update: January 16 2017


Mosul’s condition, current through earlier today (Wikimedia | Kami888)

With Mosul University in government hands, ISIS’s ability to defend eastern Mosul seems to be collapsing pretty quickly. One of the big changes in the recent course of the battle, in addition to a drastic decline in the number of ISIS suicide attacks, has been that Iraqi forces are no longer having to go back and clean up previously liberated areas two, three, four times. This is undoubtedly reflective of ISIS’s overall collapse, but it probably also reflects the decision to reinforce the Iraqi Counter Terrorism Service with regular army and federal police forces that can better hold and secure territory that the CTS has liberated. Mosul airport now seems to be taking fire from Iraqi forces in the south, in advance of an expected move there. If Iraqi forces are able to advance from the south it will force ISIS defenders in western Mosul to defend on at least two fronts.

Two problems continue to plague residents of the city. One, which we’ve covered before, is that civilians are dying and being badly injured in the fighting. Obviously you expect civilian casualties in a battle like this, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that ISIS is directly targeting civilians as it retreats, which is why the rate of civilian casualties in Mosul has been higher than that for a “typical” urban battle. Conversely, Iraqi forces have probably been more careful about civilian casualties than might have been expected, given the way the liberations of Ramadi and Fallujah went, which is part of the reason why the offensive has gone a bit slower than many expected. The second problem involves what to do with all the dead, civilian and otherwise. Giving the dead a proper burial in a war zone is pretty challenging, as you might imagine, and plus many of the casualties are ISIS fighters whom nobody is particularly interested in properly burying. Lots of makeshift graves are going to have to be dug up and attended when the fighting is over.


In the latest turn of the will they/won’t they/what difference does it make saga of the Syrian rebels’ possible attendance at the January 23 Astana peace talks, it seems they will be attending, or at least they’ll be represented by Jaysh al-Islam leader Mohammad Alloush. Well, some of them will be:

But Shaam Network, an opposition news website, reported on Monday that a number of other rebel groups, including Ahrar al-Sham, one of the main fighting forces on the ground, had decided to stay away from the upcoming talks.

“At this point in time, six years into this war, the different brigades still cannot speak with one voice when it comes to Syria,” Al Jazeera’s Stefanie Dekker, reporting from the Nizil refugee camp in Turkey, said.

So all the rebels will be represented at Astana except the ones doing most of the fighting. Sounds like a formula for success.

The talks in Astana are expected to have a tight focus on maintaining the ceasefire and getting humanitarian relief to people who need it. This is a good idea, in my admittedly amateur opinion–starting small means a better chance for a positive outcome that can build momentum leading to more ambitious negotiations in Geneva down the road. But it seems like somebody, at some point, is going to have to address the fact that the ceasefire hasn’t really been a ceasefire, and that the lack of a real ceasefire is in fact exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. Friday’s agreement that was supposed to lead to a rebel evacuation of Wadi Barada and a repair of Damascus’s water supply is now totally defunct. It died on Saturday along with the man who negotiated it, Ahmad Ghadban, who was assassinated, either by the rebels or Hezbollah depending on who’s telling the story. The government will eventually retake Wadi Barada militarily, but millions of people will be without water in the meantime and the fighting itself will only make it harder to restore their water supply once it’s over.

Meanwhile, fighting is still pretty intense in Deir Ezzor, where ISIS launched a renewed assault over the weekend against the government’s last enclave in eastern Syria. It’s possible that ISIS has cut the city off from its nearby airbase, which complicates the process of getting supplies to the people and soldiers there. I think it’s at least worth noting that this latest ISIS offensive was made possible not just by ISIS fighters moving into Syria from Mosul, but also by the carelessness with which the Syrian government allowed ISIS to retake Palmyra last month. The Syrian army has been pushing west toward Palmyra for some time now, but the loss of Palmyra helped isolate Deir Ezzor and leave it vulnerable to this new assault.


The prime suspect in the New Year’s Eve Reina nightclub attack has been captured by Turkish police, according to reports that have started filtering out over the past hour or so (I’m writing this at 6:30, just for reference, though invariably I’ll still be writing at 11 or later). The man, who allegedly goes by the pseudonym Abu Muhammed Horasani, is being described as Uzbek, after previously having been described as Kyrgyz and then Uyghur. Earlier today, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmuş said that Ankara believes “an intelligence organization” was involved in the attack. There’s no reason to lend this theory any credence–the Turkish government blames shadowy international conspiracies for virtually every bad thing that happens in that country–but it is worth watching in case they start pointing fingers at any country in particular.

Also today, at least four Turkish police officers were killed by a roadside bomb in Diyarbakır province. The location and target suggest Kurdish involvement.


The IAEA announced today that Iran has met its JCPOA requirements to remove centrifuges and other uranium enrichment equipment from its facility at Fordow. The worst deal ever negotiated continues to do what it was negotiated to do. Even so, earlier this month a group of 23 paid lobbyists deeply concerned citizens who just happen to all be current or former MEK lobbyists wrote to President-elect Donald Trump to say that they have been well-paid to say really, really just firmly believe that Trump should meet with the odd cultish Iranian opposition group and former designated terrorist group Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) and maybe coordinate his Iran policy with them. And since Trump’s Iran policy doesn’t seem to differ from MEK’s goals in any significant way, this will probably happen.

The Iranian military fired anti-aircraft guns at a quadcopter drone that flew over central Tehran earlier today. This is the second time in about a month that somebody has flown a drone over central Tehran, which is a no-fly zone because senior Iranian leadership lives there. Last month it was a documentary film crew whose drone apparently flew off course and got into the wrong airspace, but this time it’s not clear whose drone it was.

Saudi Arabia

Speaking of Trump’s Iran policy, the Saudis are pretty psyched about it. Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir talked at length about it with reporters in Paris today, and, well, I think I’ll just let this Reuters piece speak for itself:

Relations between the two worsened after hundreds of people, many of them Iranians, died in a crush at the 2015 Muslim haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia. Iran blamed the disaster on organizers’ incompetence and boycotted last year’s haj.

Ties worsened further when Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia executed a Shi’ite cleric a year ago. Angry Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran and Riyadh severed diplomatic relations.

“Our relationship with Iran is tense and it’s in function of its aggressive and hostile policies. It would be wonderful to live in peace and harmony with Iran, but it takes two to tango,” Jubeir said, speaking in English.

“We can’t be subject to death and destruction and expect to turn the other cheek. We tried, but it didn’t work.”

Saudi Arabia can’t be subject to death (of Iranian pilgrims) and destruction (or in this case some superficial damage to their embassy resulting from protests against the Saudi decision to execute a man for the crime of Preaching While Shiʿa) and expect to turn the other cheek. Or any cheek, apparently. They’ve tried. Here is an artist’s representation of how much they’ve tried:



Speaking of Saudi-related death and destruction, what’s going on in Yemen?

The United Nations’ humanitarian aid official in Yemen said Monday that the civilian death toll in the nearly two-year conflict has reached 10,000, with 40,000 others wounded.

The Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ Jamie McGoldrick told reporters the figure is based on lists of victims gathered by health facilities and the actual number might be higher. This announcement marks the first time a U.N. official has confirmed such a high death toll in Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest nation. Earlier, the U.N. reported 4,200 civilians were killed in the war.

Look, the Saudis can’t be subject to all the death and destruction they’ve directly caused and be expected to turn the other cheek. Even Jesus said, “If you slap someone on the right cheek, follow that up by starving a few thousand kids to death, and then smack him around some more.” Or something like that, you get the idea.


The Bahraini government has shut down the online version of the opposition newspaper Al-Wasat just as protests have begun heating up over the execution of three men convicted of perpetrating a 2014 bomb attack. Just in case you thought this might blow over.


At least eight police officers were killed in an attack just a few hours ago at a checkpoint in Egypt’s Western Desert. A couple of the attackers were reportedly killed and several others escaped. Attacks in the Western Desert are not unheard of but they are rare (particularly when compared to, e.g., Sinai), and it’s not immediately clear who would be behind this one. It’s possible that this could be some kind of spillover from Libya, but the location seems far enough from the Libyan border to discount that theory absent some evidence.

Before the terrorist attack, the big story in Egypt today was that the country’s High Administrative Court issued its final ruling on the sale transfer of the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia–and it ruled against the government, saying that the transfer is illegal because the government failed to demonstrate that the islands were historically Saudi territory. Egypt-Saudi relations, already clearly fraying, are likely to get worse, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is going to have to scramble to try to figure out how to move forward. He could try to cut a different deal and see if it could pass muster, but even in mostly authoritarian Egypt there’s no real legal basis on which he could just ignore this ruling and go forward with the current deal.


Fourteen people, all staff members, have been kidnapped from the campus of a religious school in Haska Mina, in the eastern province of Nangarhar. They were most likely taken by ISIS.


The Filipino government filed a diplomatic protest with China last month over Beijing’s placement of military assets on disputed South China Sea islands. This is an interesting development insofar as Philippine President Dennis Rader Rodrigo Duterte has been trying his damnedest to realign Manila’s foreign relations toward China and away from the US, but in announcing the protest today, Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay was very careful to distance himself from US Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson’s recent provocative rhetoric around the South China Sea issue.


At least four people were killed earlier today in a suicide bombing on the campus of the University of Maiduguri. You may have noticed a recent spate of suicide attacks in northeastern Nigeria, and this is undoubtedly the result of Boko Haram’s significant loss of territory. The typical reaction when any hybrid insurgent-terrorist group like this–Boko Haram, al-Shabab, ISIS, etc.–suffers losses on the insurgency side is a ratcheting up of its terror activity.

Ivory Coast

Fresh off of averting a military mutiny on Friday, the Ivorian government is dealing with nationwide strikes and student protests in Abidjan that police teargassed today. Teachers struck last year over lousy and in many cases nonexistent pay–pretty much the same things over which the soldiers have been ready to mutiny– and many other public sector workers decided to join them last week. Ivory Coast is considered the great political and economic success story of West Africa, but things aren’t looking so successful at the moment.

Oh, and the would-be mutineers say they’re still waiting for their promised bonuses to be paid. So that problem isn’t really over yet.


Kosovo’s president, Hashim Thaçi, told Reuters today that he believes the Serbian government is preparing to annex parts of northern Kosovo, a la the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014. You may recall from a couple of days ago that the latest provocation in the Serbian-Kosovar relationship was a dispute over a train festooned with pro-Serbian messages that was heading toward Kosovar territory. Pristina deployed elite police units to prevent the train from crossing the border into Kosovo, which prompted Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić to say yesterday that Kosovar Albanians “showed they want the war.” Thaçi’s response today was to accuse Belgrade of authorizing the train to whip up nationalist sentiment in majority-Serb parts of northern Kosovo and to provoke a military response from Kosovo that the Serbs could then use to justify invading and annexing the territory.

The main thing that’s been keeping Kosovo and Serbia from descending back into open conflict is that both countries would very much like to join the European Union, but the EU won’t take either unless and until both are getting along with one another. So one of the side effects of the bloom coming off the EU’s rose, after the Grexit threat and the Brexit vote, is that the promise of EU membership may no longer be an appealing enough carrot to keep the peace.

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