Conflict update: February 25-26 2017


New Trump National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster has only been on the job a few days, but I wonder if he shouldn’t already be looking for the exits:

President Trump’s newly appointed national security adviser has told his staff that Muslims who commit terrorist acts are perverting their religion, rejecting a key ideological view of other senior Trump advisers and signaling a potentially more moderate approach to the Islamic world.

The adviser, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, told the staff of the National Security Council on Thursday, in his first “all hands” staff meeting, that the label “radical Islamic terrorism” was not helpful because terrorists are “un-Islamic,” according to people who were in the meeting.

This is nice, and certainly not in keeping with the administration’s “Clash of Civilizations” view of Islam, but the NYT’s optimism notwithstanding, it doesn’t signal any change in the administration. McMaster, per the NYT’s reporting, has less influence than ultra-Islam haters Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller (both of whom have “walk-in privileges” for the Oval Office, while McMaster does not), so if they don’t like what McMaster is saying, they’ll just make sure Trump never hears it. So then the question becomes how long McMaster will stay in an advisory job in which he has no real influence.


Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani (Wikimedia)

Al-Monitor’s Ali Mamouri has written an interesting piece on the role that inter-Shiʿa political disputes in Iraq have highlighted the theological gap between Iraqi Twelvers, based in Najaf, and Iranian Twelvers, based in Qom. Iraqi clerics, following the example of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, stick to a much more quietist tradition that says religious figures should steer mostly clear of worldly politics, while Iranian clerics, following the teachings of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, have a…well, substantially different view of the proper relationship between religion and politics. In the middle is Muqtada al-Sadr’s movement, which is undeniably political, so not really aligned with Najaf, but is at odds with Qom over Sadr’s harsh criticism of the Iraqi government, which Iran supports. Sistani turns 87 this year, and he’s such a domineering presence within Iraq’s Shiʿa religious community that his death will undoubtedly have a major impact on the Najaf-Qom-Sadr relationship.


Not unexpectedly, the fight for western Mosul has increased in intensity and decreased in speed as Iraqi forces have moved beyond the southern outskirts and in to the city itself. ISIS is using every technique in its arsenal–snipers, car bombs, drones–to slow the Iraqi advance, and as in eastern Mosul the presence of so many civilians complicates the offensive. Even the hundreds of civilians who have only now opted to leave their homes are making the advance more challenging, and the hundreds of thousands who have stayed put are forcing Iraqi and coalition forces to limit their airstrikes and use of artillery. Iraqi forces are hoping to take and secure the southernmost bridge connecting east and west Mosul over the Tigris, which could then be repaired and used to convey reinforcements and supplies directly to the front line in the west.

The Iraqis have already uncovered at least one mass grave south of Mosul, which may contain as many as 5000 bodies. ISIS reportedly executed thousands of people in the immediate aftermath of their conquest of Mosul in 2014, and just tossed their bodies into pits.

Iraqi forces are still struggling to secure eastern Mosul from attacks by ISIS units crossing the river and by ISIS sleeper cells. Baghdad may appoint a military governor for the city in order to coordinate counter-terrorism operations and to try to professionalize them in the wake of a number of reports of police brutality and corruption. Additionally, on Saturday four bombs reportedly exploded near an oil pipeline in Kirkuk, killing a Kurdish soldier.


Ideally, when parties are trying to negotiate an end to a war, you’d like to see the actual fighting in that war decline. But that’s clearly not happening during this round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva, and in fact the level of violence in Syria is taking a turn in the wrong direction. On Saturday, suicide bombers and gunmen from Tahrir al-Sham (or “Al-Qaeda and Friends,” if you prefer) attacked army buildings in Homs, killing at least 32 (other reports put the toll over 40) people. Among the dead was the chief of Syrian military intelligence, General Hassan Daabul. The Syrian government responded with a number of airstrikes against rebel positions around Homs and Damascus today.

In the fight against ISIS, the Syrian army swooped in on Sunday to capture the town of Tadef, just south of al-Bab, after ISIS fighters retreating from Turkey’s capture of al-Bab (which, by the way, apparently involved “hundreds” of civilian deaths) wound up stopping there. Assad’s forces are now approaching Tabqa Dam, not all that far from Raqqa, and have also made a new offensive against ISIS near Palmyra.

In Geneva, meanwhile, little seems to be happening. Rebels want direct negotiations with the Assad government on “political transition” (which means ousting Assad through political means), but there’s no sign that Assad’s people are ready to take that step and, really, why would they? The rebels are also trying to ingratiate themselves with the Trump administration by appealing to its considerable anti-Iran priors. They’re arguing to American representatives that the goals of the Free Syrian Army, such as it remains, are identical to America’s on both Iranian influence and defeating ISIS.


Donald Trump’s “one state, two state, what the fuck do I know/care” routine has launched dozens of thinkpieces about all the various and thoroughly unlikely ways that things could work out for the Palestinians other than full-on apartheid. For example, here’s a stab at the mechanics of a “Palestinian-Jordanian confederation” that even the author seems to agree is just slightly more plausible than King Salman marrying Ayatollah Khamenei in a traditional Mormon service officiated by Robert Mugabe.

While Hamas is still outwardly (and awkwardly) trying to straddle the line between Iran and Saudi Arabia, it’s possible that the election of the reportedly very pro-Iran Yahya Sanwar as the group’s new head in Gaza is a sign that they’re trending back toward Tehran. Sanwar is the former head of Hamas’s military arm, which explains his warm feelings toward the Iranians, while Riyadh seems happy to keep Hamas at arm’s length, perhaps owing to their down-low anti-Iran alliance with Israel. This is not great for Gazans, who would be better served if their government would make nice with Egypt/the Saudis in order to potentially get more humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza. Iran will help keep the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades in weapons, but not so much with stuff that would help people in Gaza stay alive.

On the other hand, what would help Gazans the most would be a change in policy by the Israeli government, and some more eye-opening poll results like this might actually move that needle a bit:

A new poll shows that 67 percent of Israelis believe the government’s policies in the Gaza Strip have worsened security.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, leading to the takeover of the territory by Hamas militants two years later. Israel and Egypt have maintained a blockade over Gaza since then, restricting the movement of people and goods in and out of the territory.

Israel says the measures are needed for security. The sides have fought three wars since 2008.

Sunday’s poll also said 69 percent believe improving conditions in Gaza helps Israel’s interests.


On Sunday a Bahraini police bus was struck by a bomb outside the village of Jua, with four officers being injured. There doesn’t seem to have been a claim of responsibility yet, but Bahrain’s divisive sectarian politics do sometimes turn violent.


This is an interesting look at the relationship between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Egypt’s Al-Azhar Mosque, the foremost institution of Sunni religious thought in the Islamic World. Al-Azhar’s leadership actually supported the 2013 coup that brought Sisi to power, but his talk of an Islamic “reformation” and his recent push to do away with the Islamic legal concept of a verbal divorce have caused more traditionalist elements within Al-Azhar to sour on him.


On Saturday, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling Justice and Development Party kicked off its campaign in support of the “yes” side in the April referendum on constitutional changes that will give Erdoğan substantially unchecked powers. Erdoğan has already taken to referring to people who vote “no” on the measure as “terrorists,” so this promises to be a respectful and positive campaign that will not potentially result in the Turkish government imprisoning ~40 million people if Erdoğan loses the vote.


Hossein Ali Amiri, one of Hassan Rouhani’s vice presidents (the Iranian government has a lot of “vice presidents,” but apart from the First Vice President none of them have the kind of authority we would associate with that title), told Iranian state media that Rouhani, surprise surprise, is in fact going to run for reelection. Rouhani must have been feeling pretty good, because he gave a televised speech on Sunday in which he took repeated aim at his hardline critics, often with a little humor sprinkled into the mix.

On Saturday, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, announced plans to purchase 950 tons of natural uranium from Kazakhstan over the next three years, and to work jointly with Russia to produce nuclear fuel. The Iran nuclear deal permits Tehran to import natural uranium (which has to be heavily processed before it could possibly be used in a weapon) but puts checks on its supply chain. And while I know that Russia Is Officially Bad (and, really, they are), as a signatory to the JCPOA and a country that definitely does not want Iran to develop nuclear weapons, having them involved in helping Iran produce reactor fuel is actually a good thing.

Former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hilariously wrote some kind of strange mash note to Donald Trump that he sent on Sunday. In it, Ahmadinejad credited Trump for having “truthfully described the U.S. political system and electoral structure as corrupt,” complained about American meddling in the world, and advised Trump to “value” his time in office, because “it ends quickly.”

Reactionaries are so fucking weird.


Along those lines, Haibatullah Akhundzada, the leader of the Taliban, issued a public statement on Sunday calling on Afghans across the country to…plant trees. This is a rather tryhard attempt to sound governmental from an organization that spends most of its time setting roadside bombs and abducting aid workers (the day before they killed ten police officers outside a mosque in Jowzjan province), but I think we can all agree that trees are good.


On the plus side, the terminal at Kuala Lumpur airport where Kim Jong-nam was killed via having VX smeared in his face has apparently tested negative for additional VX contamination. VX is no kidding possibly the most toxic substance known to man, so it’s fortunate that nobody else was killed in this attack. I say “nobody else” including the two assassins, a Vietnamese woman and an Indonesian woman, both of whom say they were paid a small amount of money to “prank” Kim by smearing his face with “baby oil.” Assuming their story is true it may be that the North Koreans–er, whoever perpetrated this murder (but seriously, the North Koreans)–intended that they would be killed as well. The Malaysian investigation is now focused in part on figuring out how the North Korean agents er, unknown perpetrators came to possess VX in the first place.

Meanwhile, a UN Security Council report shown to Reuters says that North Korea has been running an illegal arms operation out of Kuala Lumpur, using the “military equipment company” Glocom as its front. This would contravene Security Council sanctions against Pyongyang over its nuclear program.

Saudi King Salman kicked off his big Asian tour by arriving in Kuala Lumpur on Sunday with six hundred retainers, as one does. He’s expected to spend his trip gazing out his hotel window a lot throwing piles of cash around to help goose Riyadh’s global reputation.


The Indonesian and Australian governments have patched up their differences and restored full military ties between the two countries. Indonesia and Australia often engage in joint military exercises, largely to try to keep their own relationship positive, but things hit a rough spot last month when an Indonesian officer claimed to have found materials on an Australian military base that were offensive toward Islam.

Just within the last hour, Indonesian police engaged in a gun battle with an attacker who detonated some kind of bomb in a government building in the West Javan city of Bandung. The situation is now apparently “under control,” with the attacker having been shot but no other casualties reported. There may be a second attacker still at large.


Moroccan forces withdrew on Sunday from Guerguerat in the far southwestern corner of Western Sahara, where they’d been engaged in a standoff with Western Saharan Polisario forces since last year, with UN peacekeepers trying to maintain a buffer zone between the two sides. This came a day after Moroccan King Mohammed VI spoke by phone with UN Secretary-General António Guterres and called on the UN to do something about Polisario “incursions” in the Guerguerat region. This is interesting, given that Morocco’s entire presence in Western Sahara could arguably be described as one big “incursion,” and given that the situation in Guerguerat began when the Moroccans tried to build a road that extended beyond the unofficial boundary that they had previously set between Moroccan and Polisario territory.


A suicide bomber attacked a police station in the eastern Algerian city of Constantine on Sunday but was reportedly shot before he could enter the station. There were wounded but it’s not clear how many. In recent years Algeria has been more of a staging area than a target for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its offshoots, but any story I see like this makes me wonder if the heady days of the Algerian Civil War might not be coming back around.


In Mali, the country most affected by AQIM and its subsidiaries, the central government has reached agreement with Tuareg rebels in the north to allow the appointment of a series of interim government officials in Timbuktu, Gao, and Kidal. A lot of government posts have simply been vacant since the 2012 Tuareg rebellion, and a 2015 peace deal between the rebels and the government called for those posts to be filled. The next step will be holding regional elections to fill those posts more permanently.


A UN helicopter strike on Sunday in the town of Bambari broke up a gathering of about 40 Popular Front for the Renaissance of Central African Republic rebels who were believed to be planning to carry out some kind of attack. No word on casualties.


Robert Mugabe, who’s 93 and doesn’t look a day over 167, says he’s not going to pick his own successor and “circumvent” the Zimbabwean system. I think it’s nice that a man can rule as an authoritarian dictator for ~272 years and then finally decide to respect the rule of law about stuff that’s going to happen after he’s dead. Shows personal growth.


The US State Department “condemned” an incident that took place on Friday, in which Ukrainian rebels surrounded and fired upon an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) monitoring team, then seized an aerial drone the team was attempting to launch in order to track the eastern Ukrainian conflict. The State Department further called on Russia and the rebels to honor a ceasefire that was reached/renewed last Monday.


Two years to the day after Vladimir Putin critic Boris Nemtsov was murdered near the Kremlin, allegedly by Chechens acting on Putin’s behalf for reasons that will always and forever remain a total mystery, several thousand people gathered in Moscow and other cities around the country to protest against Putin and honor Nemtsov’s memory.

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