Purely by coincidence, my absence from regular blogging coincided with the planned lull in the Mosul operation. With eastern Mosul having been liberated just before I checked out, the Iraqis have been laying the groundwork for the eventual assault on the western half of the city. Iraq forces have been actively liberating villages north of Mosul, shelling ISIS fighters building defensive works on the west bank of the Tigris, and moving units into place to prepare to cross the river.
Increasingly it appears that the paramilitary and predominantly Shiʿa Popular Mobilization Units will have a much larger role to play in anti-ISIS operations moving forward, which violates a number of the principles Baghdad laid out (and in some cases guaranteed to third parties) before the Mosul operation began. To wit:
- The PMU is probably going to be given the responsibility of liberating Tal Afar from ISIS. You may recall that the role of the PMU was a concern from the beginning of the offensive, and when it was announced that the units would concentrate on the area west of Mosul, Turkey raised objections to the idea that those forces might enter Tal Afar, where it’s feared that they could carry out reprisal attacks against Sunni Turkmens who are suspected of having collaborated with ISIS back in 2014.
- It also appears that some PMU forces are going to participate in the west Mosul offensive, though the extent of their involvement, and whether they’ll be allowed to enter the city, isn’t clear. Before the offensive the idea that the PMU might enter Mosul was seen as a non-starter, both because their presence might alienate Mosul’s civilians and because, again, Turkey would take issue.
The reason for the apparent change in plans is sheer manpower. It’s been a few months now and the regular Iraqi army force that was supposed to liberate Tal Afar just hasn’t materialized. In Mosul, meanwhile, there aren’t even enough Iraqi police forces to fully secure the eastern side of the city as it is, and that’s before they start being diverted to the western side of the city. Unless Baghdad wants to take a few months off to rebuild its forces, the PMU are going to have to play a larger role because they still have the numbers. Additionally, it would seem that the people in east Mosul were so happy to be freed from ISIS control that fears about how the PMU might be received could be overblown. On the other hand, these moves–if they materialize–will generate a response from Turkey.
Speaking of Turkey, one of the political sideshows accompanying the liberation of Mosul has been the status of Atheel al-Nujaifi, the governor of Ninewah province from 2009 through 2015. Baghdad has had an arrest warrant out for Nujaifi since last October, accusing him, during his time as governor, of facilitating the entry and basing of Turkish forces on Iraqi soil, but Nujaifi is under the protection of the Kurdistan Regional Government in Erbil and is thus untouchable. Since the Mosul operation began, Nujaifi and his Hashd al-Watani militia have been working with Iraqi forces north of Mosul, and when the eastern side of the city was liberated he apparently entered it like a conquering hero. His many political enemies, who helped push that October arrest warrant, are pushing for him to be arrested now that he’s left the sanctuary of Erbil. Nujaifi has political sway with Iraqi Kurds, Turkey, and Sunni Arabs in Ninewah, plus his own small army, so he does have a lot of support. He seems to think he can stage a political comeback by making Ninewah’s autonomy from Baghdad his main cause, but his presence in Mosul is potentially destabilizing–though not as potentially destabilizing as his arrest would be.
In Nice news, the Iraqi government is undertaking multiple projects to study and protect the country’s rich archeological record. ISIS unfortunately sold off or destroyed whatever it could in the places it conquered, but it’s very important from both national and financial perspectives that Baghdad protects what remains.
Everybody, including probably some within his own administration, is waiting for Donald Trump to clarify remarks he made last week about creating “safe zones” in Syria for displaced Syrian civilians. Trump, who was critical of American involvement in the Middle East throughout last year’s presidential campaign, may have committed himself to an action that would dramatically escalate American involvement in Syria, up to and including the imposition of the kind of no-fly zone that people (rightly, in my view) criticized Hillary Clinton for proposing. Nobody–not Russia, not Turkey, not the Syrian rebels, and certainly not the Syrian government–knows what Trump means. Maybe he doesn’t even know what he means. But whatever he means, he apparently has Saudi Arabia backing him up, both politically and (probably) financially.
Russia has deemed last week’s peace talks in Kazakhstan a “success.” So successful were they, in fact, that the next round of full peace talks in Geneva has been
pushed up postponed, for how long is anybody’s guess. Oh, and Jaysh al-Ezza, a rebel group based in Hama, has pulled out of the ceasefire, citing Russian bombardment of their positions. Moscow is circulating the outline of a Syrian constitution that would drop the word “Arab” from the country’s full name, would eliminate references in the current constitution to Islamic law, would provide for regional autonomy (e.g., for the Kurds), and would see Bashar al-Assad out of office in at most seven years (potentially much less, if recent rumors about his health have any validity). Whether the outline becomes the basis for further negotiations probably depends on whether there are any further negotiations.
In the war itself, Wadi Barada now appears to be firmly under government control, which presumably means that the Damascus water supply will be restored imminently. The more serious fighting continues to be the inter-rebel clashes in Idlib that I mentioned before I left. At this point it appears that all, or nearly all, of the rebel factions in Idlib have come under the banner of either Jabhat Fatah al-Sham or Ahrar al-Sham, and JFS is now apparently in a holding pattern (possibly because some portion of its fighters are balking at the idea of going to war with Ahrar al-Sham) while AS tries to make peace. This, I suppose, is the moderate vs. extremist fight that Washington wanted to see within the rebellion–but it’s happening at a time when the rebels are in dire straits and the group leading the “moderate” faction, Ahrar al-Sham, is itself an extremist jihadi militia.
Ankara is trying very hard to pursue a number of Turkish soldiers who sought asylum in Europe after last July’s failed coup attempt against President Tayyip Erdoğan. Around 40 Turkish NATO soldiers have applied for asylum in Germany, for example, citing the possibility of torture if they return to Turkey. A Greek court ruled last week that eight asylum seekers will not be extradited to Turkey to face charges, prompting Ankara to threaten to tear up a migration deal it has with Athens.
Kuwait is pushing for new engagement between Iran and the Sunni Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, and in a positive development it was reported last week that King Salman sent a letter of condolence to Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s family when the former Iranian president died a couple of weeks ago. But the prospects for meaningful engagement are still hampered by the fact that Iran and Saudi Arabia are each waiting for the other to make conciliatory gestures, and by the Saudi insistence that Iran stop “meddling” in “Arab” affairs. Translated, this means that Iran should butt out of Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, etc., but the Saudis should have free reign to do as they like in those countries because they’re all “Arab” nations. This is nonsensical as a standard for international affairs, unless Riyadh is asserting itself as the head of a pan-Arab empire, and I think just about every Arab country outside of Saudi Arabia would be a little put-out at such an assertion. What if, and just hear me out on this, Tehran and Riyadh both butted the hell out, all over the region? Imagine the possibilities.
Donald Trump’s first commando raid (awwww) targeting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Bayda province on Sunday killed 14 AQAP fighters…along with 10 women and children. One of the children was eight year old Nawar al-Awlaki, the daughter of American preacher Anwar al-Awlaki (killed in a targeted US drone strike in 2011) and sister of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki (killed, allegedly unintentionally, in another drone strike two weeks later). One American soldier was also killed.
Two crewmen on board a Saudi warship were killed earlier today when a group of Yemeni rebels attacked their ship in small boats.
The Israeli Knesset will vote on Tuesday on a bill that will allow Israeli settlements in the West Bank to unlawfully confiscate and develop privately-owned Palestinian land. This is just another step toward ethnically cleansing the occupied West Bank, and the fact that it’s being pushed so forcefully now that Trump is in office is absolutely not a coincidence.
ISIS’s expanding capabilities in Cairo and other parts of central Egypt is beginning to cause concern. The group has started claiming responsibility for attacks, like the December bombing of a Coptic cathedral in Cairo, under the name “Islamic State Egypt,” which obviously carries a broader mandate than “Sinai Province” and suggests that the group’s presence in Egypt has spilled out from the Sinai. The Egyptian government’s insistence on cracking down against the Muslim Brotherhood, which could provide a non-violent, political outlet for Egyptian Islamists if it were allowed to function legally, is certainly not helping. Oppressing groups like the Brotherhood (I hope the Trump administration is paying attention) closes off avenues by which hardline Muslims can express their views, and some portion of that group inevitably winds up supporting a more extreme, more violent alternative like ISIS.
Kabul is a tale of two warlords these days. On the one hand, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the formerly Taliban-aligned warlord who cut a deal with the government last year, says he’ll be returning to Afghanistan in “weeks” and will likely head straight for Kabul. How his presence will shake up the government is an open question. On the other hand, Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum is still under investigation for his role in the abduction and assault of a political rival. Any attempt to arrest him would almost certainly lead to violence, but at this point a failure to attempt to arrest him would further cement the Afghan government’s image as a thoroughly corrupt, largely ineffective sham.
Four of the country’s five missing blogger-activists have now been returned to their families, but they apparently still have no idea who abducted them or why.
UPDATE: Something always happens right after I post these things. In this case, Islamabad announced that it has detained Hafiz Saeed in Lahore. Saeed is the founder of Lashkar-e-Taiba and thus the man considered principally responsible (allegedly; he naturally denies it) for the 2008 Mumbai terror attack, which killed over 160 people and left one of the largest cities in the world in a state of collective panic. Depending on what Pakistan does with him, this could be a way to break the diplomatic ice with India…but it will also surely lead to protests by LeT supporters in Pakistan.
Airstrikes and artillery bombardments on Sunday in the Lanao del Sur province on the southern island of Mindanao killed 15 ISIS-affiliated fighters and may have seriously wounded Isnilon Hapilon, the or at least a senior leader of the ISIS-aligned group Abu Sayyaf.
Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army declared last week that it had “liberated” the Qanfouda district of Benghazi, where it had been besieging the al-Qaeda-aligned Ansar al-Sharia for several months.
Al-Shabab killed at least 28 people in an attack on a hotel in Mogadishu last week and then attacked a Kenyan military base in southern Somalia a couple of days later. Casualty reports from that action vary widely, with al-Shabab claiming that it killed over 50 Kenyan soldiers and the Kenyan military claiming that it repelled the attack and killed “scores” of al-Shabab fighters. I suppose both may be true.
Seven Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in fighting with the Russian-backed Donbas separatists in the past two days.
Starting next year, the German government has promised that it will be legal under German law to insult
Donald Trump any totally non-specific foreign leader. Currently, German law makes it illegal, for reasons that surpass understanding, for people to criticize foreign leaders, which is why Tayyip Erdoğan was able to make a literal federal case out of a German comedian making fun of him last year.
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