Conflict update: February 7 2017

OK, so…this could get long. Sorry. That’s what happens when I’m away for a few days.


I almost feel like I should start each of these with a quick roundup of the miscellaneous ways Donald Trump is fucking up around the world. For example:

  • When President Trump makes a formal state visit to the UK later this year, there’s a good chance he will be denied the honor of speaking to parliament. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow says that he will block any Trump address to the body, something about Trump’s “racism” and “sexism,” which…well, he’s got a point there. Bercow can’t entirely block Trump from speaking to parliament, because the speaker of the House of Lords also gets a say, but his unendorsement (?) should carry a pretty heavy implication.
  • Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei “thanked” Trump, in a speech he delivered on Tuesday, for “showing the reality of American human rights” through his immigration ban. Which…well, he’s got a point there.
  • ISIS is also undoubtedly very happy about President Trump and his immigration ban. Anything that makes Muslims feel unwelcome in the United States, or pits America against Islam generally speaking, is good for ISIS, and this immigration order, coupled with Trump’s rhetoric, certainly does both. Which, and if I can I may write more about this tomorrow, is probably the Trump administration’s point. I think Steve Bannon and Michael Flynn welcome a War On Islam and will happily feed into ISIS propaganda because that will ultimately help fuel their propaganda.

Trump’s War on Islam

The New York Times is reporting that the Trump administration is considering two new foreign terrorist designations, and they’re both massive escalations of Trump’s War on Islam: the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Designation the Muslim Brotherhood as an FTO would allow the Trump administration to shut down large numbers of Islamic charities and mosques all over the United States, because so many Islamic organizations have ties to some variant of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is not a monolithic organization and most of its branches behave as peaceful political entities. Yes, it is an Islamist organization, and its historical record on violence is checkered, but for the most part since the 1970s it has been a political Islamist organization, and as such it has been an important outlet for conservative Muslims to find their political voice without resorting to violence. Designating it a terrorist organization would materially aid more extremist organizations, including ISIS and al-Qaeda (which, again, is probably part of Trump’s goal), and would greatly complicate relations with allies like Turkey (the Justice and Development Party is closely aligned with several Brotherhood chapters) and Qatar.

Designating the IRGC as an FTO could fundamentally undermine the Iran nuclear deal without technically touching it, which again is probably Trump’s goal. Anyone, American or otherwise, found to have dealings with an organization related to any FTO can be subject to civil and criminal penalties in the US. The IRGC has its tentacles woven throughout the Iranian economy, such that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for any foreign investor trying to do business in Iran to avoid dealing with the IRGC entirely. So any investors/businesses that value being able to operate in the US are going to have a hard time investing in Iran, which drastically cuts into the benefits Iran gets from sanctions relief.


The main story in Mosul continues to be one of scattered fighting while Iraqi forces work to secure the eastern side of the city and prepare to attack the western side. To help with the former, new police units are being trained and military intelligence units have been moved into the city to try to root out ISIS sleeper cells and sympathizers. To help with the latter, federal police forces are amassing south of Mosul in what sure looks like an attacking force. The operation in east Mosul didn’t really start clicking until the Iraqis opened additional fronts to the north and southeast that took pressure off the counter-terrorism units attacking from the east. The Iraqis are likely intending to have these police forces, along with some counter-terrorism units, move in to western Mosul from the south to supplement the main attack across the river. They may move simultaneously with the main attack or wait a day or two before they begin their offensive.

Among the many problems plaguing east Mosul, apart from the continued presence of ISIS cells and the regular volleys of mortar and drone fire from the western side of the city, residents–thousands of whom are reportedly beginning to return to the city–are now also without electricity. As it turns out, the city connects to the national power grid via western Mosul, so ISIS was able to cut power to the east. Residents are also being forced to deal with the presence of rotting ISIS corpses in the streets, some of which still hold unexploded–but potentially very explodable–suicide belts. The Iraqis say they’re leaving the corpses in public to discourage any undiscovered sleeper cells or others who might still, for some reason, be thinking about giving ISIS a try. There are also reports of clashes between different Iraqi security units, some of which–the counter-terrorist units in particular–appear to be trying very hard to prevent anything that could be classified as sectarian abuse.

Surprisingly, Donald Trump’s attempt to ban Iraqis from coming to the United States hasn’t gone over very well with the Iraqis who are currently fighting ISIS and dying in the process. The ones interviewed for that Buzzfeed piece had some thoughts–“fuck Trump,” for example. Troublingly, some fighters in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units have started suggesting that they may target American personnel in Iraq in response to the travel ban–though only, it seems, if the Americans remain in Iraq long after Mosul is liberated.


Amnesty International claims that the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad hanged upwards of 13,000 people over five years in the Saydnaya Prison north of Damascus. When prisoners weren’t being hanged, they were (allegedly) being starved, sexually assaulted, and otherwise tortured. This report is particularly troubling when considered along with the consistent rumors that Assad released hundreds of violent extremists from the same prison early on in the civil war, strengthening extremist forces like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra so as to weaken more moderate opposition and cast the war as a conflict between the secular Assad and the forces of Islamic extremism. In my view you can’t dismiss allegations that Assad took deliberate actions to strengthen extremists, but the impact of those actions has been consistently overblown by interventionists.

At least 30 people were killed in airstrikes on the city of Idlib today. Russia was suspected of having carried out the strikes, but Moscow denied it.

The Nation’s Roy Gutman has written an explosive investigative report on the YPG, alleging among other things that the Syrian Kurdish militia has committed war crimes in expelling Arab and Kurdish civilians from the places it’s conquered and destroying their property, that it’s colluded with the Assad regime and even ISIS, and that it and the PYD are indistinguishable from the PKK. Some of this is virtually undeniable–there are plenty of reports that the YPG has expelled civilians, has destroyed property, and has worked with Assad at times, and while the YPG/PYD and the PKK are not exactly one and the same, Washington’s efforts to distinguish them entirely has never been anything more than a convenient fiction. But some of Gutman’s charges, especially with respect to the YPG’s supposed collusion with ISIS, seem thin. For one thing, a lot of his sourcing comes out of the Iraqi KRG, an avowed PKK and PYD enemy. For another, some of his examples of supposed collusion don’t really hold up very well–the YPG failed to capture a town from the Syrian rebels in 2013, but then moved in after ISIS retreated from the same town in 2015, and Gutman takes this as evidence that they’ve been working together instead of evidence that, you know, situations changed over the ensuing two years. Anyway, I would be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the piece here.


The Trump administration is considering drastic cuts to US aid to the Palestinian Authority, because if you’re going to screw the Palestinians, why not go all the way?.


With his cherished constitutional referendum getting mixed results in public opinion polling, Tayyip Erdoğan has opted for a tried and true campaign tactic: fear. Specifically, he’s telling voters that a vote against the referendum will embolden the PKK. This is a tactic that has worked for Erdoğan before, but obviously there’s no way to know if it will work this time. One thing seems certain, though: Erdoğan’s Ottoman Dynasty cheering section really isn’t going to help his referendum campaign if she keeps saying stuff like this out loud:

However, Osmanoglu did not stop there. Next, she went on a talk show and confessed she considers herself blue-blooded royalty and hence would love to see the monarchy reinstated. She also went to court demanding lands and property she claims belong to her royal ancestors. She had stated on various TV shows that while Ottomans are en vogue in Turkey, she could not remain as a ghost. She declared that if the courts in Turkey fail to return the lands and property back to her family, she would take the inheritance case to the European Court of Human Rights.

In interviews, she lamented that that she has no heirloom jewelry from her family. She said that when she goes to Saudi Arabia, she is hosted as a princess, but in Turkey she is not accorded the proper protocol.


Yemeni government forces have secured the Red Sea port town of Mokha, which should put them in position to continue advancing up the Red Sea coast to Hudaydah. If they’re able to take Hudaydah that could be the real beginning of the end for the rebels.

The Yemeni government has also reportedly decided to revoke permission for American special forces to conduct ground operations inside Yemen. This is undoubtedly fallout from the disastrous raid in Bayda last month that killed at least ten civilians, but it also may be a little bit of payback for Trump including Yemen in his immigration ban. There’s already some confusion about what this decision entails or whether these reports are even accurate. As far as I can tell, this isn’t a ban on US ground operations in Yemen, but a revocation of the blanket permission Washington formerly had to conduct such operations at its own discretion.

Saudi Arabia

A man described by Saudi authorities as “mentally ill” tried to set himself on fire in front of the Kaaba on Monday night. There doesn’t appear to have been any terrorist connection here, and since he was taken into custody it’s likely that any reason he might offer for trying to self-immolate will be suppressed, but the incident is probably worth mentioning anyway.


Egyptian forces were able to kill 14 militants and capture 10 others in a raid in central Sinai on Monday.

Elsewhere, Egyptian activists are trying to convince the Sisi government to stop using a 1914 law that makes it very easy for the government to imprison and execute political dissenters. Their argument? Well, apparently the law was repealed in 1928, but King Fuad I, who opposed the law, never allowed the repeal bill to be published after it was passed.


At least 20 people were killed in a suicide attack on the Afghan Supreme Court building in Kabul on Tuesday. The attack was claimed by the Taliban.

The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, which began documenting civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2009, reported that 2016 was the most violent year yet, with around 11,500 civilians killed or wounded. The Taliban was the biggest culprit, but all of the increase over 2015’s total can be attributed to a huge increase in activity by ISIS, which was responsible for almost 900 civilian casualties. The Afghan government, trying and continuing to fail to win hearts and minds, was responsible for about 20% of those civilian casualties, mostly due to “indiscriminate use of heavy weapons.”


Not only is the Philippine government-Communist New People’s Army ceasefire over, but, per Rodrigo Duterte, so are peace talks between the two sides. As if to punctuate his point, on Monday Philippine soldiers captured New People’s Army leader Ariel Arbitrario.


A few days ago, Beijing was seething over Defense Secretary James Mattis’s comments, delivered during a visit to Japan, that the United States would defend Japan’s claim on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Today, they’re apparently happy that Mattis also said that the South China Sea dispute should be resolved diplomatically. And speaking of the South China Sea, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said today that the Trump administration should “brush up on the history of World War II” before it makes any more comments on the region. China believes that in the post-war settlement, Japan returned all the territory it took from China back to China, including the Spratly (or Nansha, to the Chinese) Islands. While he’s certainly right about Japan returning China’s territory to it after the war, the thing is that China’s pre-war claims on the Spratlys is disputed, and on top of that, under international maritime law most/all of the Spratly “Islands” are technically “rocks,” which means possessing them does not mean that their possessor has the right to claim territorial waters around them.


There is some evidence that suggests the UAE is preparing to substantially boost its support for Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar and his so-called Libyan National Army by deploying fighter jets to eastern Libya. The deployment of these fighters could support a new advance by Haftar against Misrata or into southwestern Libya.

The Sahel

Leaders of five nations across the African Sahel zone (the geographic region between the Sahara and the African Savannah)–Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger–are planning to form a joint counter-terrorism force. The Sahel, with its vast swathes of barely-governed territory and marginalized populations, became very fertile ground for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its offshoot organizations as AQIM was pushed out of Algeria during the 2000s.


Two Boko Haram suicide bombers attempting to attack the northeastern city of Maiduguri had their attacks thwarted by Nigerian security forces today. One bomber was killed but the other was apparently taken alive.

President Muhammadu Buhari, in the UK on “medical leave,” has asked parliament to extend his leave. Buhari is 74 years old, so this obviously raises speculation that he’s seriously unwell in some way.


Five mortar rounds struck near Mogadishu airport earlier today. There are no reports of related casualties, but it’s likely that the attack was meant as a demonstration, presumably by al-Shabab, in advance of Wednesday’s parliament vote to elect the country’s new president. An African Union military base outside Mogadishu was also reportedly attacked.

South Sudan

South Sudanese rebels accused Egypt (!) of carrying out airstrikes against their positions in the northern part of the country over the weekend. Egypt and the South Sudanese government both deny the charge–and, to be fair, the rebels allege that Egyptian planes dropped something like nine bombs on their positions, which seems like way too small a bombing run for Cairo to have even bothered.


The UN expects 500,000 Burundians to flee their country due to violence that began last year when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to seek a constitutionally-dubious third term in office. Over 380,000 Burundians have already fled, taxing the capacity of surrounding countries in the Great Lakes region to handle refugees. For its part, Nkurunziza’s government continues to make it very difficult for NGOs to investigate Burundi’s human rights situation.


The heaviest fighting in eastern Ukraine “subsided somewhat” over the weekend, according to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, but contrary to previously announced plans to pull heavy weapons off of the front lines, both sides still appear to have their heavy weapons in place, which obviously keeps tensions high. Still, the break in fighting allowed some degree of normalcy to return to Avdiivka, which is no small thing.

There is substantial evidence to support the conclusion that Kiev, at the very least, shares pretty equally in the blame for the latest round of fighting. What’s most troubling from the standpoint of the prospects for peace is that the Ukrainian public actually appears to be less inclined to compromise with the Donbas rebels and their Russian backer than their government is. That puts Kiev in a pretty difficult situation–it needs to make some concessions because it needs this war to be over and because there’s international pressure to resolve the crisis, but it’s hard to imagine any leading political figures being willing to incur public outrage by backing a conciliatory approach.

Luhansk People’s Militia commander Oleg Anashchenko was killed in a car bombing on Saturday. Ukrainian special forces are the likely culprit, but these kinds of incidents always raise questions.


The Russian government has protested the interview that Fox News flack Bill O’Reilly conducted with Donald Trump before the Super Bowl on Sunday. Specifically, they’re upset that O’Reilly referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “killer.” And you could almost see their point…if Putin’s political enemies didn’t have such a strange habit of being poisoned or otherwise murdered all the time. The latest such case involves journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, who’s now in a coma for the second time in two years after apparently ingesting an “unknown substance.” You’d think Putin opponents would stop ingesting all these unknown substances, or jumping in front of multiple bullets, etc.


Don’t look now, but polling shows that support for Scottish independence has ticked up to 49 percent, from 45.5 percent about a month ago. Some of that is obviously noise, but in the interim since the last poll Theresa May has committed her government to negotiating a clean break with the European Union, which Scottish voters don’t want, and has made nice with Donald Trump, whom Scottish people tend not to like. Another independence vote seems increasingly likely, and that will leave the British parliament in a bind: allow the referendum and risk Scottish independence, or block the referendum and risk creating an uproar over Scottish independence.


The news just keeps getting worse for French presidential candidate François Fillon, who is now accused of paying his wife severance when she left the pretend job he allegedly gave her in order to squeeze some extra money out of the French taxpayers. He insists on continuing to run for reasons now passing all understanding. His spot as front-runner has been taken by neoliberal centrist Emmanuel Macron, who is himself now having to deny rumors that he’s had a gay extramarital affair, and…you know what? I’m really not a conspiratorial person, but it’s starting to seem like some outside force is trying really hard to clear the decks for fascist candidate Marine Le Pen.


Angela Merkel’s conservative coalition is watching its polling lead over the center-left Social Democrats slip to as little as four points, with seven months to go before elections are held in September. This is the closest the SPD has polled to Merkel’s coalition since 2013.


Peace talks have officially begun between the Colombian government and the country’s second major rebel faction, the ELN. Meanwhile, the government says that about 300 FARC fighters have refused to demobilize.

The War on Terror

The Pentagon may have failed to disclose thousands of airstrikes in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan, going all the way back to 2001. In 2016 alone, Military Times found over 450 strikes just in Afghanistan that weren’t disclosed. Why? Well, it turns out that the Pentagon doesn’t track helicopter and drone strikes carried out by the US Army, because…uh, it’s complicated.

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