Conflict update: February 20 2017

McMaster Gets the Gig

H. R. McMaster (Wikipedia)

Donald Trump has a new national security adviser, and it’s not a name that was on many candidate lists: Lt. General H. R. McMaster. I’ll confess that keeping track of general officers in the US military is not exactly a pastime of mine, so I don’t know much about McMaster. John McCain likes him, which is a bad sign, but he’s also written critically of the military’s failure to challenge the civilian policymakers who got us into Vietnam and of the Bush administration’s approach to the Iraq invasion, so that might be good. He’s very well-regarded in the “counter-insurgency” school within the military, which sometimes strikes me as a bit of a cult, but he does have considerable experience in CENTCOM and particularly in northern Iraq. That experience, at least per Thomas Ricks, seems to have been OK–in particular, the notion that “every time you disrespect an Iraqi, you’re working for the enemy” is something the military and its current commander in-chief would do well to internalize.

Most importantly, McMaster isn’t Michael Flynn and isn’t a conspiracy addled, war-mongering maniac like Michael Flynn. It’s not clear whether he’ll be stuck with Flynn’s collection of like-minded maniacs on the National Security Council. Robert Harward, you’ll recall, refused the job rather than accept that he wouldn’t have control over his own personnel (and thus, he probably surmised, he wouldn’t have much real influence over national security policy either). Maybe McMaster insisted on bringing in his own people and Trump gave in, or maybe, as an active duty officer, McMaster felt more obligated to take the job despite the constraints than the retired Harward did. But still, at least he’s not Flynn, or someone equally disturbing like John Bolto–I’m sorry, what was that?



The main combat operations today seemed to center on the southern part of Mosul, where Mosul airport is located. Iraqi forces have made the airport one of their immediate priorities, with the hope that, after some repairs, it will be usable for combat support missions for the rest of the offensive. The latest update from Reuters says that Iraqi forces have reached the “vicinity” of the airport, but I’m not sure what “vicinity” means.

Joel Wing has a rundown of the three initial prongs of the west Mosul operation:

The first stage of the new operation has three main goals. One is for the Federal Police to take Abu Saif, which is the high ground overlooking south Mosul. The Rapid Response Division is heading for the Ghazlani military base, which is next to the Mosul airport in the southern section of the city. Their ultimate goal is to seize the airport itself. The Islamic State has tried to destroy the facilities there so they cannot be used. Once it is secured army engineers, likely with U.S. coalition support, are going to move in and try to make repairs as quickly as possible to the runways to allow them to be used to fly in supplies for the battle. All together these would give the ISF a vantage point over the entire southern section of the city, as well as staging areas for moving forward. A third thrust is being made by the army’s 9th Division and the Hashd’s Al-Abbas Division towards the southwestern section of Mosul. At a later time, the Golden Division and other units are expected to cross the Tigris River using pontoon bridges provided by the Americans. Some of those have been sent to the Palestine neighborhood in southern Mosul. That would make the militants fight on two fronts the south and the east, stretching their manpower and resources

ISIS is still trying to launch asymmetrical attacks in eastern Mosul, but it is at the same time increasingly concerned with resistors in western Mosul. For now the west Mosul resistance has mostly taken the form of symbolic acts, but as Iraqi forces close in on the main populated areas of the city there may be more forceful efforts by the people there to participate in their own liberation.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis made a trek to Iraq as part of his long overseas “please don’t listen to what President Trump says” tour. This time his theme was “please don’t think that President Trump really wants to take your oil even though he constantly talks about taking your oil.”


Maybe this is because it’s President’s Day and I was subconsciously blocking it out, but I didn’t see very much of note to report on Syria today. With preliminary talks starting in Geneva, the government is striking the hell out of rebel-held areas around Damascus. Meanwhile, the ISIS-linked Khalid ibn al-Walid Army attacked Syrian rebel forces in the southern part of the country, near the Golan. The Free Syrian Army counterattacked and was able to claw back some of the ground ISIS won, but any fighting near the Golan is noteworthy insofar as it’s so close to the Israeli border.

The Iranian government summoned the Turkish ambassador to Iran to express anger over some remarks that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu made about Iran during the Munich Security Conference over the weekend. Çavuşoğlu said that Iran is pursuing a “sectarian policy” with the goal of undermining Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, and Tehran apparently took exception. I could have mentioned this under “Iran” or “Turkey,” but the most immediate casualty of a Turkey-Iran falling out will undoubtedly be the ad hoc Turkey-Russia-Iran alliance currently trying to manage the Syrian civil war.


At Al-Monitor, Ben Caspit has an interesting theoretical piece on alternatives to the usual one- or two-state Israel-Palestine solution:

Is there any other option aside from two states or one? Israel has been wrestling with this issue ferociously this past week. Everyone is talking about new, “out of the box” ideas. There are currently three main ways to square the circle and bypass the quagmire of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

  • A “regional peace process” instead of bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
  • The confederation with Jordan idea, newly resuscitated.
  • Trilateral land swaps involving Israel, Egypt and Palestine or even a four-way exchange including Jordan.

The regional peace process is less a viable alternative than a long-running Israeli attempt to dodge direct talks with the Palestinians. A Palestinian confederation with Jordan is almost impossible to imagine because, for one thing, most Palestinians and Jordanians would resist it. The various land swap ideas are usually ridiculously complicated (you can read Caspit’s variation at the link) and it’s hard to imagine them happening either. But then again these days it’s hard to imagine a one- or two-state plan happening too.

Meanwhile, in the non-theoretical world, the Israeli government is planning to make hundreds of East Jerusalem Palestinians homeless so that it can build a road that only Israeli settlers will be allowed to use.


Cross-border Pakistani artillery strikes, ostensibly targeting militants who are based in Afghanistan, have displaced upwards of 200 families in eastern Afghanistan, with some casualties though there don’t seem to be any numbers yet. The Pakistani military says its ready to work with Afghanistan on stopping the cross-border movement of all militant groups, but I suspect it’s going to be hard to negotiate that kind of thing so long as Pakistan keeps shooting at Afghanistan.


The Pakistani military says its airstrikes on Monday killed “dozens” of militants in North Waziristan, along the Afghan border.


Bangladeshi Foreign Minister A. H. Mahmood Ali said today that the international community must lean on Myanmar to stop trying to wipe out the Rohingya. Ali’s main concern is stopping the flow of Rohingya refugees in to Bangladesh, of course, but the point is still important.

North Korea/Malaysia

Pyongyang is coming unglued, accusing Malaysia–which hasn’t even finished its investigation–of colluding with South Korea to blame the murder of Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, on the North Korean government. Malaysian authorities have arrested one North Korean chemist in connection with the murder and four other suspects managed to make it back to North Korea. Meanwhile, CCTV video has been released that appears to show the actual attack on Kim Jong-nam.


A convoy carrying Fayez al-Sarraj, the head of Libya’s Government of National Accord, came under heavy gunfire in Tripoli earlier today. There were no injuries, but it points once again to the trouble the GNA is having just securing Tripoli.


Late last month, Morocco rejoined the African Union over three decades after it left the organization in 1984. The thing is, the issue that drove Morocco to leave the AU–its disputed claim over Western Sahara–is still A Thing all these years later, and the AU is still predominantly pro-Sahrawi independence. It will be interesting to watch how Morocco manages its new AU membership and what happens on the Western Sahara front.

The Gambia

New President Adama Barrow has ordered the release of more than 170 political prisoners who had been indefinitely detained by former President Yahya Jammeh’s government. However, Gambian police also arrested 51 Jammeh supporters accused of “harassing” Barrow supporters. “Harassment” encompasses a range of possible acts, some of which might be legitimate crimes, but it’s a disturbingly broad term in this context.


Protests in Conakry related to a teacher’s strike turned violent today, and five people were reportedly killed in clashes between protesters and police. It’s not immediately clear how they died.

South Sudan

Famine has been declared in part of South Sudan’s Unity state, with 100,000 people at immediate risk of starvation.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Zeid b. Raʿad Zeid al-Hussein, the UN’s High Commissioner for Human Rights, called on the DRC government to seriously investigate reports of human rights violations by its soldiers while fighting restive militias in the country’s Kasai Central province.


Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s ambassador to the UN, died unexpectedly this evening in New York. It appears he may have suffered a heart attack, though I have no doubt that somebody somewhere is concocting a theory that connects his death to Russian intrigues with respect to the Trump administration or whatever. That story has been given new life with the revelation that Felix Sater, a Russian-American businessman who’s had financial dealings with the Trump Organization, has been working as an intermediary between people close to Trump (including Michael Flynn) and a pro-Russia parliamentarian in Kiev who is pushing a plan to end the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Trump’s financial exposure to Russian interests is probably the most serious of the various problematic connections Trump is supposed to have with Moscow–and it’s worth noting that Trump could scuttle this concern in short order by releasing his financial information, but he won’t.


A brand-new ceasefire in eastern Ukraine came and may have gone on Monday, with Kiev accusing separatists of breaking the ceasefire with repeated artillery strikes. A more recent report from the BBC, however, suggests that after some early problems the ceasefire is largely holding.

That peace plan I mentioned above is being pushed by pro-Russia Ukrainian legislator Andrii V. Artemenko, but the Russian government is not only denying that it had any knowledge of Artemenko’s plan, it’s denouncing the plan as “absurd.” The plan calls for Russia to pull out of eastern Ukraine in return for sanctions relief, and puts the question of Crimea to a national referendum in which Ukrainian voters would be able to decide whether to lease the peninsula to Russia for 50 or 100 years. Moscow in particular objects to that last provision, since the Russian government considers Crimea officially part of Russia and “leasing” it would be a tacit admission that it is, in fact, still part of Ukraine.


Colombian authorities believe ELN rebels may have been responsible for yesterday’s bombing in Bogota. The ELN has been in early negotiations with the Colombian government on a peace deal similar to the one the government reached with the FARC rebel group last year. Assuming this theory is correct, and assuming it was the main ELN organization and not a splinter group unhappy with the peace talks, this could scuttle the negotiations.

Nazi Memorabilia

Adolph Hitler’s telephone was auctioned off for $240,000 yesterday. Little is known about the buyer, one “Mr. Nonnab,” except that he apparently comes from “someplace far away.”

Yes, that’ll do

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