Conflict Update: January 23 2017


Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Iraq has fully retaken eastern Mosul from ISIS. It seems like somebody has made this same announcement every day for the past week, and that’s because somebody has made this same announcement every day for the past week. But you’re dealing with different somebodies who have different ways of defining success. By one metric capturing Mosul University and the east entrances to all five bridges over the Tigris was the important milestone, because everything else is just mopping up. By another metric having Iraqi forces in control of each of eastern Mosul’s neighborhoods was the time to declare victory even if there were still pockets of ISIS fighters in some of those neighborhoods that had to be cleared out. By yet another metric it won’t be victory until all the fighting is over. Which definition you use might depend on your role in the operation–the commander of the coalition air support might have a different idea than the head of Iraq’s counter-terrorism forces.

Anyway, the Iraqi government declared victory in eastern Mosul today. The Iraqi army also declared victory…and then quickly undeclared it. You know when you’ll know for sure that eastern Mosul is fully liberated? When the Iraqis start attacking western Mosul.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi opened an investigation into human rights abuses allegedly committed by Iraqi forces in and around Mosul. This move came after a video was posted online that purportedly shows Iraqi soldiers summarily executing three captive ISIS fighters, which is obviously a no-no even for people who used to work for ISIS, but will probably spend more effort looking into reports of abuses against civilians. Hopefully the investigation will be conducted thoroughly and transparently, because that’s the kind of thing that can help bring the country together once the Mosul operation is finished. Speaking of bringing the country together, Al Jazeera just published the latest in what has been a string of stories across multiple outlets about the return of Iraqi Christians to towns like Qaraqosh that were largely abandoned when ISIS rolled through back in 2014. These places are utterly devastated and will need a lot of time and resources to be rebuilt.

There are reports that US Special Forces recently conducted a raid near the town of al-Baʿaj, west of Mosul. Rumors have put Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in that area, but if he was the target of the raid nobody is saying so. One wonders how much leeway US forces are going to continue to have to operate in Iraq if their new commander in chief and his minions don’t stop shooting their mouths off about taking Iraq’s oil. One also wonders how well the rest of the Mosul operation will go if the Iraqi government suddenly begins to feel like it has to treat US personnel as potential threats.


The first day of peace talks at Astana are over (actually day two should be underway by now, or about to get underway), and if you had “nothing” in your “what will day one of the Astana talks accomplish” office pool, be sure to collect your winnings. Things apparently got off to a pretty rocky start:

First, the rebel delegation refused to talk face to face with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s negotiators. Then, Assad’s negotiator traded barbs with opposition negotiator Mohammed Alloush after he accused Assad of violating the truce. “We haven’t seen any signs of commitment to the ceasefire; there should be clarity and agreement on this first,” opposition spokesperson Yahya al-Aridi told Al Jazeera.

The head of Assad’s delegation, Bashar al-Jaafari, accused opposition negotiators of representing “terrorist organizations.” He also downplayed Turkey’s role in the talks because of its support for rebel groups in northern Syria. “Turkey is violating Syrian sovereignty, so there is no Syrian-Turkish dialogue,” he said.

Russia, Turkey, and Iran reportedly made a new agreement about cooperating to fight ISIS, but you’ll note that there’s nothing in there involving Syrians or the Syrian civil war. Regardless of how the second day goes, you’ll likely see those three countries make another agreement to “defend” the current “ceasefire” in advance of another round of talks in Geneva at a later date–or, in other words, they’ll declare victory and bug the fuck out.

While the Astana talks were going on, the Kurdish YPG militia issued a statement saying that it would refuse to be bound by any agreement reached there and blamed “the entities that are participating and that have sponsored these talks” for causing “the problem in Syria in the first place.” So even if some kind of breakthrough were to occur in Kazakhstan, it would still have to contend with the Kurdish question back in Syria.

In other news, the Russian Ministry of Defense said today that its pilots had conducted a collaborative strike against ISIS targets in al-Bab with the US-led coalition, which is the first time that’s happened. The Pentagon then promptly denied that any such thing had taken place, even though that’s exactly the kind of thing that President Trump has said he wants to see.


Opinion polling has already begun around the planned referendum on President Tayyip Erdoğan’s slate of constitutional changes that would transition Turkey from a parliamentary system to a presidential system with a largely unchecked presidency, and it looks close. Of the two polls conducted so far, one has the referendum passing by a slim margin, while the other has it being defeated by an even slimmer margin. There are probably going to be two main blocks of swing voters: MHP voters who are unmoved by their party’s sudden lurch out of the opposition and into Erdoğan’s lap, and AKP voters who may like Erdoğan and AKP but who are wary of making such a huge change to the Turkish state. Working in favor of the referendum passing is the fact that Erdoğan has already jailed every high-profile political or media figure who might publicly campaign against it.

Erdoğan, meanwhile, is touring Africa, mostly trying to get leaders all over the continent to shut down charter schools owned by his White Whale, Fethullah Gülen. Unless/until the Trump administration agrees to hand Gülen over to Ankara, Erdoğan will have to content himself with trying to take apart Gülen’s networks.


The Trump administration is beginning to temper expectations about its previously declared plans to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. There were rumors that the administration might announce the move as early as this week, but they’re now talking about being at the “beginning” of the process of discussing the move, which probably means it’s not happening any time soon. It’s entirely possible that the Israeli government itself doesn’t want Trump to make this move, at least not now, since it could jeopardize Israel’s tenuous but stable coexistence with much of the Arab world.

A new player may have just entered the Middle East peace process. While his diplomats are talking openly about filling the global leadership role they see the United States vacating under the Trump administration, Chinese President Xi Jinping told the Arab League last week that he supports a Palestinian state in the West Bank along pre-1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Now to some extent Xi is poking Trump in the face here, but if China were to genuinely enter the Israel-Palestine fray on the Palestinian side, that could be a major development.

Gulf Arab States

The Trump administration itself may also be rethinking the Israeli embassy move out of a reluctance to upset the outpouring of support Trump seems to be getting from his fellow autocrats in the Persian Gulf. The Gulf Arabs may not like what Trump has to say about Islam or Israel, but they love what he and his national security team have to say about Iran–a shared loathing for Tehran is maybe the only thing that can bring Michael Flynn and James Mattis together, for example–and that’s really all the Gulf states (save Oman) care about these days.


Five Egyptian soldiers returning from leave were attacked and killed by gunmen, probably ISIS Sinai militants, in northern Sinai late yesterday.


The Yemeni army–or at least the parts of it still supporting President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi, announced today that its forces had taken control of the Red Sea port city of Mokha. Mokha has ostensibly been a hub for arms being shipped in to support the Yemeni rebels, though it’s always been pretty clear that the rebels took most of their weapons from Yemeni military bases and depots. The more important thing here, it seems to me, is that by capturing Mokha the Yemeni-Saudi coalition will now be able to land troops and heavy weaponry closer to Sanaa.


The Taliban have posted an open letter to President Trump on one of their websites, calling on him to pull US forces out of Afghanistan.

South China Sea

The Trump administration says it will prevent China from building new islands in the South China Sea and deny its ownership over the ones it’s already built. During his Senate confirmation hearings, Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson was very pointed on the subject of the South China Sea islands, and today the White House backed up his remarks. It’s not clear how the Trump administration plans on accomplishing these objectives short of some kind of military action.

The Gambia

Gambians who were happy to see Yahya Jammeh step down are already starting to get angry over the fact that he was allowed to fly off into a very well-financed exile instead of being made to answer for his alleged crimes. It does not appear that Jammeh was given immunity from past crimes as a condition of his agreeing to step down, but clearly he was promised safe passage out of the country, which is effectively the same thing. As long as he doesn’t return to The Gambia it’s unlikely he’ll face any kind of legal trouble.


The newest death toll from last week’s mistaken bombing of a displaced persons camp in northeastern Nigeria has risen sharply to 236 people. Previous counts suggested somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 deaths, but the remoteness of the camp and the fact that it was attacked by Boko Haram just days after the airstrike meant that it was tough to get accurate information.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Catholic bishops who brokered the New Year’s deal to solve the crisis about President Joseph Kabila’s refusal to hold new elections are warning that the deal could fall apart, as talks over implementing its provisions are apparently going nowhere.


The Prime Minister of this Indian Ocean island nation, Anerood Jugnauth, announced his retirement over the weekend. He’s 86 so that couldn’t have come as much of a shock to anybody. The shock came when he also announced that he would be succeeded by his finance minister…who also happens to be his son, Pravind Jugnauth. Mauritius is a genuine democracy and always gets high marks on those “freedom indices” and “democracy power rankings” that international relations people like to put together, so this hereditary handover of power isn’t being well received.


Donald Trump made no secret during the campaign of his hostility to NAFTA and to immigrants coming into the US over the border with Mexico. His solution the problem of NAFTA may involve scrapping it and drawing up a bilateral free trade deal with Canada only–a move that would probably cripple the Mexican economy and send a whole new wave of migrants toward the US. There are ways to make NAFTA work better for everybody, US workers and Mexican workers alike, but this isn’t it. To just yank the plug on the deal while simultaneously militarizing the Mexican border would be almost sociopathic, and it’s hard to imagine what kind of human being would want to do something so destructive to his fellow human bein-


Oh, right. Never mind.

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