Conflict update: January 24 2017


With everybody’s eyes on the peace conference in Kazakhstan, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham has made a big move to consolidate its control of the rebellion in Idlib:

Heavy fighting erupted in northwestern Syria on Tuesday between a powerful jihadist organization and more moderate rebel groups, threatening to further weaken the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad in its biggest territorial stronghold.

Rebel groups fighting under the Free Syrian Army (FSA) banner, some of which attended peace talks in Kazakhstan, accused the jihadist group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham of launching a surprise attack on their positions.

Fateh al-Sham, previously known as the Nusra Front, issued a statement which said it had been forced to act preemptively to “thwart conspiracies” being hatched against it. The group accused rebels attending the Kazakhstan talks of conspiring against it, but did not refer to Tuesday’s fighting directly.

JFS’s statement also accused the rebels who were participating in Astana of trying to “divert the course of the revolution towards reconciliation” with Bashar al-Assad.

On Sunday, Hassan Hassan wrote a piece in which he talked about the possibility that Ahrar al-Sham “will soon rip itself into pieces.” The reason is that Ahrar al-Sham has been trying to serve as the bridge between JFS and the Free Syrian Army–refusing, for example, to go along with any effort to isolate JFS–at a time when it’s becoming impossible to maintain that bridge. JFS has begun targeting rebel militias for elimination, and there are signs that it’s even starting to pick Ahrar al-Sham apart by encouraging its more extremist fighters to defect. Now there are some elements of Ahrar al-Sham that are reportedly trying to intercede to stop JFS but other elements that are reportedly helping JFS, which suggests that the group really is starting to rip itself into pieces.

Speaking of the Astana talks, they seem to have ended about as I thought they would, with Russia, Turkey, and Iran declaring a very esoteric victory, pledging their commitment to upholding the ceasefire, and closing up shop. The rebels attending the talks refused to sign on to the Russia-Turkey-Iran pledge and instead complained about Iran’s admittedly conflicting roles as Assad’s biggest supporter and as one of the supposedly neutral brokers in the talks (Damascus made similar and also well-founded complaints about Turkey). There were no direct talks between the Syrian government and the rebels, which seems like kind of a bad sign.


Eastern Mosul has been liberated! Again! Seriously, though, Baghdad has now retracted its retraction of its announcement yesterday that the eastern half of the city has been fully liberated.

Even if this latest announcement has to be retracted again for some reason, the writing is on the wall for eastern Mosul. So preparations are underway for the assault on western Mosul, and we could see some movement in a matter of days. Iraq’s paramilitary Popular Mobilization Units are gearing up to conduct some kind of “support” operation outside the city, which looks like it will be the first direct action in that phase of the conflict. The predominantly Shiʿa PMUs are barred from entering Mosul for fear that their presence will antagonize civilians, but they have been active in the area between Mosul and Tal Afar so they’re well-positioned to undertake something like this. ISIS is getting ready too, sabotaging public infrastructure in the east and setting up gun emplacements in homes along the western bank of the Tigris. The United Nations is also preparing to deal with the civilian fallout among the estimated 750,000 people stuck in that part of the city.

In Nice news, UNESCO has added the Feast of Khidr Elias, which Iraqis will celebrate next month, to its Intangible Cultural Heritage List, which has led the Iraqi government to renovate the al-Khidr shrine in Baghdad. Khidr Elias honors the prophet al-Khidr, one of a handful of religious figures given significant attention in the Quran who aren’t obviously Biblical figures. He’s sometimes identified as Elijah (Elias), or as Elijah’s Iranian counterpart and friend, but stories are also told about him with Alexander the Great and, in the Quran, with Moses.

In other Nice news, there are unconfirmed (unconfirmable, really, unless he croaks) reports that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was “critically wounded” in an airstrike–it’s not clear whether it was coalition or Iraqi–on the town of al-Baʿaj. There’s no real reason to give this report any more credence than any of the several other reports of Baghdadi’s death/critical wounding over the past few years, but it is worth noting that in yesterday’s update we mentioned that US Special Forces had reportedly carried out a raid near al-Baʿaj recently. That’s a lot of attention to be paid to one otherwise seemingly nondescript town in northern Iraq.

The Persian Gulf

Let’s see if this goes anywhere:

Kuwait’s foreign minister will make a rare visit to Tehran on Wednesday to deliver a message to President Hassan Rouhani on a “basis of dialogue” between Gulf Arab states and arch-rival Iran, Kuwait’s state news agency reported.

The visit comes days after Rouhani said countries including Kuwait had offered to mediate in the escalating feud between Shi’ite Muslim Iran and Sunni power Saudi Arabia.

Kuwaiti news agency KUNA quoted Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah Khaled al-Sabah as saying relations between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of six Arab states “must be based on the UN Charter and principles of international law”.


Donald Trump is going the be the best president the Israeli squatter movement has ever had:

Israel announced plans on Tuesday for 2,500 more settlement homes in the occupied West Bank, the second such declaration since U.S. President Donald Trump took office signaling he could be more accommodating toward such projects than his predecessor.

A statement from the Israeli Defence Ministry, which administers lands Israel captured in a 1967 war, said the decision was meant to fulfil demand for new housing “to maintain regular daily life”.

Most of the construction, it said, would be in existing settlement blocs that Israel intends to keep under any future peace agreement with the Palestinians. However, a breakdown provided by the prime minister’s office showed large portions of the planned homes would be outside existing blocs.

Benjamin Netanyahu has reportedly told his cabinet that “we can build where we want and as much as we want,” s0 at least he’s got that going for him.


The Israeli government has issued its highest-level terror warning for Sinai, which means they think a major attack is imminent, and it warning its citizens to leave the area.


If your curiosity was raised by yesterday’s piece on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the Carnegie Endowment has a more detailed look at recent events there:

Over four days last April, up to 200 Armenians and Azerbaijanis died in the worst fighting since 1994 across the so-called line of contact that divides their two armies east of the disputed territory of Nagorny Karabakh and cuts across Azerbaijani territory that the Armenians captured as they secured a victory in the conflict of the 1990s.

The violence precipitated a flurry of diplomatic activity over the summer. The Azerbaijanis tentatively agreed to measures to strengthen the 1994 ceasefire regime, and the Armenians assented to a more comprehensive negotiating process. But in the last six months, the deals provisionally concluded in the summer have slowly unraveled. The Karabakh situation has defaulted to a familiar and depressing mix of mutual accusations of bad faith, Azerbaijani frustration, Armenian inertia, and diplomatic wrestling over tiny details.


Kabul has issued arrest warrants for nine of Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum’s bodyguards in connection with charges that they kidnapped and tortured a political rival. The nine men apparently failed to come in for questioning in the case.

The Russian foreign ministry, meanwhile, said today that an American pullout from Afghanistan would cause the country to “collapse.” It’s definitely a sign that we’re living in a new world when Moscow starts encouraging American intervention.


Pakistan successfully tested its second new nuclear-capable missile this month, because deterrence. Hopefully India will see it that way.

The Gambia

New President Adama Barrow named his vice president today, and it’s former health minister Fatoumata Tambajang. Interestingly Tambajang may have helped cause the whole crisis around Yahya Jammeh’s refusal to step aside after Barrow’s election victory. If you recall, initially Jammeh accepted the election results, but then a few days later he reneged and said there were too many irregularities to accept them. During that interim, Tambajang, a senior opposition figure, gave an interview to The Guardian in which she said that Jammeh would be investigated for alleged crimes committed while in office–crimes like jailing his political opponents, many of whom are thankfully being let out of prison now. It’s not too farfetched to imagine that her investigation talk helped convince Jammeh to fight the results rather than accept them.


A roadside bomb near a military camp in Afgoye killed at least four soldiers and possibly seven when it exploded earlier today. Al-Shabab claimed credit for the blast. But the group also suffered a defeat today, when Kenyan soldiers drove it out of the town of Badhaadhe, in southern Somalia, killing seven of its fighters in the process.

The War on Terror Refugees and Immigrants

Tomorrow, per Reuters, President Trump will sign a series of executive orders barring refugees from coming to the United States and blocking visas from being issued to travelers from Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.


Eli Lake has it on good authority from his pal, the psychotic Michael Ledeen, that the Trump administration aims to ply Russia with rewards in order to open some daylight between Moscow and Tehran and thus diplomatically isolate Iran. This seems like a long shot for reasons that Lake identifies without knowing he’s identified them:

It’s unclear what the Russians would want in return this time around. Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who was an architect of Obama’s first-term outreach to Russia, told me he didn’t know what Trump could offer Putin in exchange for abandoning Iran, a key ally and trading partner. “Are we going to buy Russian weapons systems that Moscow can now sell to Tehran? Of course not,” he said. “Are we going to get our Sunni allies to do so? That seems unlikely. I just don’t see what Putin has to gain from such a deal.”

Putin has at times hinted at what he’d like from the U.S. Before the election, the Kremlin announced it was suspending an agreement to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium in October. The Kremlin’s announcement said Russia would consider renewing the plutonium agreement if the U.S. reduced its military presence in NATO countries along its borders, canceled sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and compensated Russia for revenue it lost because of those sanctions.

In exchange for renewing a fairly minor deal on plutonium disposal, Moscow told the Obama administration that it wanted the US to reduce its commitment to NATO, end Crimea sanctions, and pay Russia back for the revenue it had lost. Now, Trump is hoping to have a better relationship with Vladimir Putin than Obama did, but he’s going to ask Russia to turn its back on a very useful Middle Eastern ally and a major trade partner and arms/nuclear client. Imagine what Putin will want in exchange for that.

Now, this plan isn’t entirely farfetched. Russia has screwed Iran over before for the promise of some carrots from Washington, and its new bond with Turkey over Syria has in a small way come at Iran’s expense. But even if Russia were to agree to distance itself from Iran at Trump’s urging, it’s entirely possible that it will have its own strategic reasons for doing so. It may, for example, decide that it would be OK with Trump breaking the Iran nuclear deal because of the long-term damage that would do to American diplomacy. I don’t think that Putin and his team are extraordinarily savvy or devious, but I do think they’re savvier than the Trump administration, and so whatever happens here will probably be to their advantage more than to America’s.

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