Conflict update: February 23 2017


I think somebody needs to brief Dumbo again:

“I am the first one that would like to see … nobody have nukes, but we’re never going to fall behind any country even if it’s a friendly country, we’re never going to fall behind on nuclear power.

“It would be wonderful, a dream would be that no country would have nukes, but if countries are going to have nukes, we’re going to be at the top of the pack,” Trump said.

Russia has 7,300 warheads and the United States, 6,970, according to the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-nuclear group.

“The history of the Cold War shows us that no one comes out ‘on the top of the pack’ of an arms race and nuclear brinkmanship,” said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the independent Arms Control Association non-profit group.

“Russia and the United States have far more weapons than is necessary to deter nuclear attack by the other or by another nuclear-armed country,’ he said.


Several Western outlets are reporting that Iraqi forces took control of most or possibly all of the Mosul airport during Thursday’s fighting and launched an attack on the nearby Ghazlani military base. ISIS appears to be struggling to react to the multi-pronged Iraqi attack, with rapid response and federal police forces moving in on the airport from the south while counter-terrorism and armored units attack from the west and coalition jets and helicopters strike ISIS positions from the air. The Iraqis also talked about a third ground prong, with their “Golden Division” attacking over the Tigris via pontoon bridges, but it appears that this was a bit of psychological warfare, since the Golden Division now looks ready to join the attack from the south. If it was all a ruse, it seems to have worked; ISIS reportedly put a great deal of time and effort into building up their defenses along the river, which apparently isn’t going to do them much good.

Unless ISIS breaks before then, I would expect the fighting to get harder as Iraqi forces get closer to the populated areas of the city, where ISIS has set a number of booby traps and where air power will be less useful because of concerns about minimizing civilian casualties.

The Pentagon has begun grudgingly acknowledging that some unspecified number of embedded US soldiers have been wounded over the past several weeks in and around Mosul and had to be evacuated off of the battlefield. This shows that, after the east Mosul operation stalled out and had to be rebooted, the level of direct American involvement in the offensive increased significantly.


Syria as of February 12; red = government, green = rebel, gray = ISIS, white = al-Qaeda, yellow = Kurdish (Wikimedia | Ermanarich)

So peace talks in Geneva are just kicking off, and while there’s really no chance of any major breakthrough there is some hope that this round of talks can start to build some positive momentum aaaaaand there it goes:

The opening ceremony on Thursday was delayed by several hours following disputes between the main opposition bloc – the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) – and de Mistura over the structure of the opposition delegation.

The bloated size of the delegation was due partly to de Mistura’s inclusion of two other groups – the Moscow and the Cairo platforms – in the talks. The envoy invited the two pro-Russia, government-tolerated opposition groups to sit separately from the HNC, an umbrella group of armed and political factions.

“You must have seen that there was, in particular, a very heavy [presence] on the side of the opposition in the room… they were including also the armed groups… because, as you know, peace is made between those who fight each other,” said de Mistura.

The idea of the opposition sitting at different tables riled the Saudi-based HNC, leading to hours of last-minute diplomacy ahead of the opening ceremony as diplomats scrambled to find a solution.

“Today, the real opposition that represents the Syrian people is the HNC. This delegation and the HNC, extends its hand to any national partner that adopts the will of the Syrian people,” Naser al-Hariri, head of the HNC delegation, told reporters ahead of the opening session.

This is kind of funny, to be honest, because while the Moscow and Cairo groups don’t have any apparent constituencies within Syria, neither does the HNC, at least not among Jabhat Fatah al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, the groups doing most of the fighting (including with each other). The HNC and Ahrar al-Sham aren’t on bad terms, per se, but there’s no reason to believe that AS would necessarily honor a deal reached between the HNC and Assad. As for JFS, not a chance. These talks would look doomed to failure even if the war weren’t currently raging on at least three separate fronts even as negotiators try to talk things out in Europe.

The Pentagon’s big report on how to defeat ISIS is due at the White House on Monday, where there’s a zero point zero percent chance the man who tasked them with writing the report will actually read any part of it. But this is a big deal with respect to Syria, obviously, and particularly with respect to what kind of plan the report will lay out for Raqqa. Both the YPG and Turkey seem pretty sure that they’ll be picked to serve as Washington’s proxy in the Raqqa fight, but Amberin Zaman reports that the YPG have the inside track because decision-makers in the Pentagon simply don’t think any of Turkey’s proposals for taking Raqqa are plausible. If Washington does go with the YPG, it will likely try to make some concession to Ankara like switching its position on whether the Kurdish PYD, YPG’s parent organization, should be allowed to have a seat at the table in Geneva.

Turkey’s English-language Hürriyet Daily News is reporting that Turkish and Free Syrian Army forces have established “almost total control” over al-Bab. The amount of time it’s taken Ankara to get to this point is part of the reason why it seems implausible that they could spearhead an operation to take Raqqa.


Al-Monitor has a decent rundown of the approaches that Turkey’s various political parties are planning to take with respect to April’s referendum on expanding President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s powers. The “no” camp is ideologically more diverse, and different camps are emphasizing different arguments: preserving democracy, stopping Erdoğan’s war against the Kurds, preserving the traditional structure of the republic, etc. The “yes” camp, which is basically Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party and the main leadership of the ultra-nationalist MHP (some of whose major figures are in the “no” camp), by contrast, has one overarching argument, which is fear:

In his referendum directive to party branches, MHP leader Devlet Bahceli justifies support for the amendments by invoking a Kurdish threat to Turkey’s unity, referring to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey as well as the Syrian Kurds’ Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG). “Turkey is facing a dire period full with dangers and threats. The imperialist conspiracy, aimed at changing the borders of neighboring regions and redrawing them by force, has mercilessly intensified,” he wrote. “Sadly, our country is besieged. Russia and the Western alliance are patting the PKK-PYD-YPG on the back, seeking to strengthen the camp of our enemies. It is an inevitable and indisputable imperative for Turkey to keep its unity strong and close ranks through national consensus and cohesion.”

The AKP, which got 50% of the vote in the last elections but whose constituents now make up the largest segment of the undecided, has embraced the same theme, but even in a more populist and dangerous way.

Erdogan, for instance, made the following remarks at a Feb. 11 gathering in Ankara: “Who says no? The PKK says no. Who says no? Those who want to divide and carve up this country say no. Who says no? Those who challenge our flag say no. Who say no? Those who are against the native and national in this country say no.”


President Trump apparently “likes” the two-state solution, which is nice. But he…well, read it for yourself:

“No, I like the two-state solution,” Trump said when asked whether he had backed away from the concept during his joint White House appearance with the right-wing Israeli leader. “But I ultimately like what the both parties like.”

“People have been talking about it for so many years now. It so far hasn’t worked,” he added. But he then repeated his revised position, saying: “I like this two-state solution, but I am satisfied with whatever both parties agree with.”

Trump’s comments provided nuance to his earlier comments.

“I’m looking at two states and one state, and I like the one both parties like,” he said at last week’s news conference. “I can live with either one.”

The one both parties like! Of course! We should just do that one! Why hasn’t anybody thought of this before Trump? Think of all the time and effort that’s been wasted on this issue when all we needed to do was do the one both parties like!

Zionist Union/Labor Party leader Isaac Herzog has his own “ten point plan” for peace, which he revealed in a Haaretz op-ed today. It amounts to freezing the status quo on Palestinian self-rule and Israeli settlements, the one wherein there’s really no chance of getting to a peace deal, in place for ten years, and then…well, let me break it down step by step:

  1. Keep everything just the way it is for ten years, with some extra security provisions. If there’s no major new violence during those ten years, move to step 2.
  2. ????
  3. Peace!

As Mitchell Plitnick puts it:

Isaac Herzog, the Israeli opposition leader and head of the Zionist Union party, issued a “Ten-Point Plan” for a restarted peace process. His stated goals in doing so are to stave off the Israeli right’s drive toward annexation of the West Bank, to preserve the settlement blocs, to end Israel’s rule over another people, and to conclude a regional peace. Unfortunately, his plan would likely accomplish only one of those goals, the one already a fait accompli: maintaining the settlement blocs.

With the appointment of Yahya Sinwar as its new political boss in Gaza, Hamas is now facing an existential choice between repairing relations with Egypt, which could lead to an influx of desperately needed supplies, or with Iran, which will help rearm Hamas’s military wing in advance of the next clash with Israel. Middle Eastern politics being what they are, it doesn’t seem possible for Hamas to play both sides of the fence anymore as it had done before the Syrian civil war and the Saudi-Iran rift. That next clash with Israel could be coming sooner than you’d think, but if Hamas were to realign itself with states more friendly to Israel, then maybe it could be forestalled.


The body set up by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen to investigate whether or not the Saudi-led coalition has been committing war crimes has, and this was a real surprise, basically cleared the Saudi-led coalition of all wrongdoing. Apart from a single “technical fault” that messed up one 2015 airstrike and resulted in seven civilian deaths, everything has really gone quite well, from that time the Saudis bombed that funeral, to that time the Saudis bombed that other funeral (fuck funerals, am I right?), to the thing where they’re starving everybody to death…yep, no war crimes here.


Three Egyptian firms that had been contracted to build homes in Saudi Arabia say that their projects have been suspended due to rising tension between Cairo and Riyadh. The Saudis are denying this, but if it’s true it would just be the latest in a string of incidents suggesting that relations between the Saudis and their erstwhile client are not all that hot right now. I guess the Saudis really want those Red Sea islands, huh?


Two attacks hit different parts of the country today. A bomb struck a market in Lahore, killing at least seven people, and gunmen attacked a government office in Charsadda. No claims of responsibility have been made yet, but given that the increasingly ubiquitous Jamaat-ul-Ahrar has been active in both places recently, they’re a safe bet for at least one if not both of these attacks. UPDATE: after additional investigation, the Lahore explosion looks likely to have been an accident caused by a gas leak.


On the plus side, Philippine Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay said on Thursday that China has promised not to build anything on the Scarborough Shoal, ownership of which is disputed by Manila and Beijing. On the minus side, Yasay also said that Manila may file another formal complaint if China is, as satellite imagery appears to show, building missile facilities on man-made islands in the Spratlys. Also on the minus side, maybe, Indonesia is reportedly reaching out to Australia about conducting joint naval patrols in the SCS, which I’m sure go over very well with the Chinese.


Malaysian police have announced that Kim Jong-nam was poisoned with VX nerve agent. Which means the two women who smeared it on his face put themselves in tremendous danger in doing so, suggesting that they’re either committed to the North Korean cause or were duped into carrying out the murder. I have a hard time imagining the amount of money it would require to get someone of a more mercenary frame of mind to deliberately get that close to what is one of the most toxic substances ever created. That may help explain why the women were Indonesian and Vietnamese, respectively. South Korean authorities believe that the North’s Reconnaissance General Bureau was behind the attack, and the RGB doesn’t typically use non-Korean operatives, but maybe they made an exception in this case because of the danger the VX posed.

Malaysian police have requested that Interpol put out an alert on four North Korean nationals wanted in the murder.

Pyongyang threw a little shade at China on Thursday, accusing Beijing of kowtowing to the United States when it announced it was cutting off coal shipments from North Korea a few days ago.


Reportedly “heavy” fighting broke out in Tripoli Thursday evening between militias supporting the Government of National Accord and rival militias, possibly supporting the defunct General National Congress.


Militants ambushed a Nigerien army patrol near the country’s border with Mali on Thursday, killing 15 of them.


It doesn’t get as much global attention as Syria or even Yemen, but there is a truly catastrophic humanitarian crisis happening in the Lake Chad area, largely due to the conflict with Boko Haram and spillover from the Libyan civil war, but also partly due to good old fashioned government corruption and incompetence. Lake Chad is overtaxed by the increasing population and consequently drying up, which only adds to the problem. Africa Is a Country has much more detail.


Fighters from the M23 Tutsi rebel movement clashed with government forces in the eastern DRC Wednesday and Thursday, with at least 16 of them being killed and dozens more captured. Ugandan authorities then nabbed some 44 fighters attempting to flee across the border, though the DRC has accused Uganda of enabling the recent M23 resurgence and allowing the group to have free run of the border.


Andrii Artemenko, the Ukrainian legislator with the sketchy plan for ending the Ukrainian civil war and the equally sketchy links to people close to Donald Trump, is apparently being investigated for treason in Ukraine.


There is a potentially serious problem brewing in the UK, where the Scottish government believes it can win a new referendum on post-Brexit independence and the British government, maybe not coincidentally, doesn’t really want to let them hold one.


Rex Tillerson and John Kelly visited with the Mexican government on Thursday, and while it may not have been the most cordial diplomatic event in history, we’re not, as far as I know, at war with Mexico or anything like that.

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