Conflict update: January 31 2017

After yesterday’s marathon catch-up session, I’m going to try to keep this one relatively short.


Fighting in and around the town of Avdiivka, in the northern part of Donetsk, has reached a level serious enough to move the UN Security Council to express its collective “grave concern.” At least eight people were reportedly killed there today, and while total casualty figures are sketchy, it seems that upwards of 20 people, and maybe even more–Ukrainian soldiers, separatists, and civilians alive–have been killed since Sunday. Each side is naturally accusing the other of initiating the new round of violence, but frankly both have reasons to escalate right now, to try to stake out their positions before the new US administration firms up its Ukraine policy. The State Department has also expressed concern over the fighting, but otherwise the Trump administration hasn’t said anything. Make of that what you will.


Not very much to say today. The next round of talks in Geneva, which was supposed to begin on February 8 but was then postponed, has now been rescheduled for February 20. The hope is that the extra time will allow the ceasefire to take deeper root and give the rebels time to organize their delegation. The heaviest fighting today seems to have taken place in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus, where the government claims its forces have made significant gains against rebel fighters in the past several hours.

In good news, the UN World Food Programme has been able to resume air drops of food and other basic supplies into the besieged eastern city of Deir Ezzor, even though heavy fighting continues to rage there between government and ISIS forces. Apparently they’ve found a new drop zone that is safe from the fighting.

Rumors persist that Bashar al-Assad recently suffered a “mini-stroke” and was treated in Beirut. Those same rumors say his condition is not life-threatening but that he may have some impaired movement on his left side. Obviously there’s not enough to go on here to say that these reports are genuine, but there’s also no particular reason to go by the Syrian government’s denials either.


Baghdad has tried to clarify the role that the Popular Mobilization Units will play in the west Mosul campaign, and it seems that in fact it is sticking to its initial plan to keep the PMU out of the city. Instead, the paramilitaries will probably participate in a support operation to cut the highway between Mosul and Tal Afar. However, there are new concerns about a series of offices that the PMU appear to be opening in previously liberated majority Sunni cities like Fallujah. The PMU, which are deputized militias, say that as an official/semi-official organization they have the right to open offices in these places in order to help ensure their security, but the concern is that the predominantly Shiʿa PMU will antagonize the Sunni Arabs in those cities, since tensions between those communities date back to the PMUs’ origins as sectarian militias formed in the aftermath of the US invasion.

Not that he had much choice, but Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has opted not to retaliate in kind to Donald Trump’s decision to bar Iraqis from entering the United States. He did level a pretty sharp rebuke at Trump, though:

Abadi pointed out that it is unfair to tar with the same brush the entire population of a nation.

“There are Americans fighting with” the Islamic State, he said. “I can’t say because of that all Americans are terrorists. Each country has good and bad people.”

Joshua Landis’s “Syria Comment” blog has republished an interesting piece by Matthew Barber on the frosty relations between the Yazidi community in Sinjar and the Kurdistan Regional Government. The Yazidis feel, at least somewhat justifiably, that they were abandoned by the KRG when ISIS moved on Sinjar in 2014, and so they’ve embraced the PKK, which moved in to protect them. Historic KRG-PKK tensions have now become current KRG-Yazidi tensions.


Sunday’s US Special Forces raid on an al-Qaeda encampment in Bayda, which killed at least 10 women and children in addition to a number of AQAP fighters, was apparently as big a mess as that body count would suggest:

Contrary to earlier reporting, the senior military official said, the raid was Trump’s first clandestine strike — not a holdover mission approved by President Barack Obama. The mission involved “boots on the ground” at an al Qaeda camp near al Bayda in south central Yemen, the official said.

“Almost everything went wrong,” the official said.

An MV-22 Osprey experienced a hard landing near the site, injuring several SEALs, one severely. The tilt-rotor aircraft had to be destroyed. A SEAL was killed during the firefight on the ground, as were some noncombatants, including females.

Defense Secretary James Mattis had to leave one of Washington’s biggest annual social events, the Alfalfa Club Dinner, to deal with the repercussions, according to the official. He did not return.

One of the victims, as we now know, was 8 year old US citizen Nawar (also called Nora) al-Awlaki, the daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki and sister of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, both of whom were killed in drone strikes in 2011. Marcy Wheeler is asking if she was the target of the raid, given Donald Trump’s campaign promise to target terrorists’ families. It’s unlikely that she was, but the question itself is certainly a fair one, and frankly that speaks volumes about the state of America’s counter-terrorism operations. And while this operation might have been a tactical blow to AQAP, the propaganda value it will get from stories of American commandos opening fire on women and children more than makes up for it.

The UN is warning that public health in Yemen has been set back a decade due to the civil war, and that 3.3 million Yemenis are suffering from acute malnutrition. Roughly 63 of every 1000 children born in Yemen fail to survive to their fifth birthday, up from 53 a mere two years ago. In more acute humanitarian matters, there are tens of thousands of Yemeni civilians trapped along the Red Sea coast by the Yemeni-Saudi coalition’s latest offensive around the port city of Mokha.


Boy the Israelis are enjoying quite the construction boom on other people’s land, aren’t they?

Israel announced plans on Tuesday for 3,000 more settlement homes in the occupied West Bank, the third such declaration in eleven days since U.S. President Donald Trump took office.

Trump has signaled he could be more accommodating toward such projects than his predecessor Barack Obama.

A statement from the Israeli Defence Ministry, which administers lands Israel captured in a 1967 war, said the decision was meant to fulfill demand for housing and “return to life as usual”.

I’d love to know how they’re defining “usual” there.

Meanwhile, it appears the more the Israeli government considers Donald Trump’s eagerness to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, the less it actually wants him to follow through with the plan. Moving the embassy could set back relations with the Palestinian Authority, severely raise tensions in the West Bank, and potentially even open Palestine up to ISIS.


Although they won’t confirm it, it seems pretty clear at this point that the Iranians tested a ballistic missile on Sunday. While it’s debatable whether this test constitutes a violation of the nuclear deal–Iran is supposed to restrict development of nuclear-capable missiles, but “nuclear-capable” is somewhat ambiguous–it is a violation of other UN resolutions, and as such the Security Council is going to hold a session over it. It’s also a potential opening for the Trump administration to slap new sanctions on Iran, which could then become a threat to the nuclear deal.


Heavy fighting is being reported in Helmand province between Taliban and Afghan troops, who are receiving US reinforcements and air cover.


Supporters of now-arrested Lashkar-e-Taiba commander Hafiz Saeed say that the Pakistani government arrested Saeed out of fear that Pakistan might be added to the Trump administration’s list of Muslim nations whose nationals are barred from coming into the US. This seems farfetched–Trump himself seems to have little awareness and less regard for standard US foreign policy conventions, but he’s surrounded himself with people who are deeply enmeshed in those conventions. This is why, for example, there’s no way Saudi Arabia was ever going to wind up on that list despite the fact that Saudi nationals have killed more Americans than any other Middle Eastern country’s nationals in this century. Likewise, I find it hard to believe that Pakistan would ever be put on that list. But I suppose Saeed’s supporters aren’t looking for accuracy so much as they’re out to discredit Islamabad using any argument they can.

UPDATE: Philippines

Tonight’s five-minutes-after-I-hit-post news is that Communist rebels in the Philippines have announced that they will end their current ceasefire with the government on February 10. They say that Manila hasn’t upheld its end of the bargain with respect to prisoner releases and respecting the boundaries of rebel-held territory. They still support peace talks, though, which I guess is something.

South Sudan

Government and rebel forces are engaged in heavy fighting in the city of Maklal, which lies in the heart of the country’s largest oil-producing region. There have been no firm casualty reports but it appears there have been several casualties.


At least six people were reportedly killed today in the latest round of clashes between predominantly Christian farmers and predominantly Muslim herdsmen in the central part of the country.


This seems promising:

Donald Trump has joined Russia, China and radical Islam as a threat to the European Union, EU leaders were told on Tuesday by the man chairing a summit where they will debate relations with the United States.

European Council President Donald Tusk, a conservative former premier of Poland, wrote to EU national leaders to lay out themes for discussion when they meet in Malta on Friday to discuss the future of their Union as Britain prepares to leave.

In vivid language that reflects deep concern in Europe at the new U.S. president’s support for Brexit, as well as his ban on refugees and people from several Muslim countries, Tusk called on Europeans to rally against eurosceptic nationalists at home and take “spectacular steps” to deepen the continent’s integration.

Saying the EU faced the biggest challenges of its 60-year history, Tusk named an “assertive China”, “Russia’s aggressive policy” toward its neighbors and “radical Islam” fuelling anarchy in the Middle East and Africa as key external threats.

These, “as well as worrying declarations by the new American administration, all make our future highly unpredictable,” he said.


White nationalist university student and (alleged) mass murderer Alexandre Bissonnette, who was arrested in connection with this weekend’s mass shooting in a Quebec City mosque, has been charged by Canadian authorities with six counts of murder and five counts of attempted murder. It seems like more charges could be in the offing, as 19 people were injured in the attack.

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