Conflict update: March 9 2017


It’s very early to draw conclusions, particularly considering the current circumstances in Iraq, but it’s starting to look like when Donald Trump said he was going to “bomb the shit out of them,” that was another thing that people were right to take literally. And, apparently, “them” in that phrase meant, well, pretty much everybody:

The U.S. has dramatically ramped up the campaign against AQAP in Yemen in 2017, with deadly results. New America estimates that approximately 16 civilians have been killed in U.S. strikes in Yemen so far this year. All but one of these strikes was launched after Trump took office. The last time a yearly figure was that high was in 2013.

This year has seen a significant increase in the number of both airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition and civilian casualties, according to the tracking site Airwars, but this trend began before Trump took office as fighting to retake the ISIS-held cities of Raqqa, Syria, and Mosul, Iraq, intensified. In January, the site recorded 264 confirmed or fairly credible civilian casualties compared to 139 in December. In January, likely civilian deaths from coalition airstrikes outnumbered those from Russian airstrikes for the first time. In February there, were 110 deaths, and March has already seen 89.

The Guardian has a report today on the sordid recent history of US counter-terrorism training operations across Africa, and here we need to lay the blame at President Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama. In one country after another–Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan, American funding and training is going to governments whose militaries are regularly accused of crimes against humanity. Meanwhile, the incidence of terrorism on the continent has skyrocketed since 2009, in spite of all that aid–or maybe because of it. You see, to the extent that US training has helped these militaries do a more effective job of killing and otherwise mistreating people, it may be that we’re helping to create more recruits for the Boko Harams, al-Shababs, and al-Qaeda affiliates of the world.


The most volatile spot in Syria remains the area between al-Bab and Manbij, where Turkish forces and their rebel proxies are trying to get at the YPG but are instead running into the Syrian army, which Turkey doesn’t want to fight but which its proxies do very much want to fight. Syrian state media reported today that Turkish forces shelled the Syrian army outside of Manbij, killing an unspecified number of Syrian soldiers.

Per the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, today seems to have been a particularly bad day to be a civilian in eastern Syria. In al-Mayadin, a town outside of the besieged city of Deir Ezzor, airstrikes–probably Russian–killed at least seven civilians. Suspected American airstrikes, meanwhile, killed at least 20 civilians in the village of Matab, outside of Raqqa. Speaking of Raqqa, American officials say they’re starting to see signs that ISIS leadership is fleeing that city in advance of the expected operation to liberate it, which is a pretty good sign that they don’t plan on Raqqa being their last stand.

At the Middle East Institute, analysts Ibrahim al-Assil and Basel al-Junaidy look at the fallout from the Jabhat Fatah al-Sham/Ahrar al-Sham split in Idlib. Some of Ahrar al-Sham’s most extreme elements left the group to join JFS’s new Tahrir al-Sham coalition, leaving Ahrar al-Sham militarily weaker–but there may be a political silver lining here for a group that has long been thought too extreme to receive overt foreign assistance:

On the other side, current Ahrar leaders have found some relief. They no longer sense the threat of being designated a terrorist group next to al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, as the jihadist figures and their followers defected from the group. They know for a fact they are weaker today than before the events of January, but the silver lining from their point of view is that they have become the last option for Turkey in the northwest, given their new alliance with F.S.A. factions. Currently, Ahrar claims to represent the moderate option in the northwest and is portraying itself as the sole group capable of confronting the al-Qaeda-led Tahrir al-Sham. Thus, it now has a higher chance to survive, find support in Turkey, and gain acceptance from other regional and international players. Although Ahrar is not participating in the Astana process, some groups who recently moved under its umbrella have joined and are represented in the talks. That strengthens Ahrar’s political legitimacy and makes it a de-facto participant.

The New Ahrar al-Sham is…well, it’s hard to say what it is yet, particularly when the fallout from its conflict with JFS still hasn’t fully shaken out. But I don’t think we should start labeling them “moderate” just yet.


Iraqi Lieutenant General Talib Shaghati, commander of the country’s elite counter-terrorism forces, said today the Iraqis plan to have fully liberated western Mosul “within a month.” That may be optimistic if, as many analysts have suggested, the heaviest fighting is still to come. Buzzfeed’s Mike Giglio reported today on the tactics–primarily improved car bombs and its homemade drones–that ISIS has been using to try to stem the Iraqi advance:

On a cold recent morning, the elite Iraqi soldiers advancing to retake ISIS’s key stronghold in Iraq were forced to fend off a vicious counter-attack by ISIS militants that featured all of these weapons at once — the start of a hard day of fighting that put the enemy’s deadly and evolving tactics on full display.

ISIS deployed four car bombs in quick succession as its drone rained bombs onto the soldiers. A sniper’s bullet kicked up dust. A mortar blast wounded two soldiers, who were rushed away.

These changing tactics are inflicting a heavy toll on Iraqi soldiers as they advance across multiple fronts — and show how ISIS is trying to stay one step ahead of the U.S.-led coalition striving to do the same. “They were watching how we work,” said Mustafa Bakr, a sergeant major with Iraqi special forces. “They know our weaknesses.”

Iraqi government sources have reported progress toward central Mosul from the south, but as has always been the case during this operation it’s best not to rely on initial Iraqi reports. Oftentimes these official reports have gotten ahead of events on the ground, and even when they’ve been accurate the Iraqis have had to “liberate” neighborhoods multiple times because ISIS has been able to reenter–or maybe was never actually cleared from–those areas.


Referencing the recent spate of American drone strikes against its personnel in the area, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has reportedly been calling for aid to help fortify its positions in central Yemen against the Houthis.


Something called the Monitoring Committee of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (no, I’d never heard of it either) is arguing that the Parliamentary Assembly should put Turkey under “formal scrutiny,” which is apparently what it does to countries that are at serious risk of not being considered democratic anymore. It’s getting so a guy can’t even arrest and/or sack thousands of people for no cause, or imprison his political opposition on a whim, without somebody raising a stink about it. I’m not sure if Turkey can do anything to rehabilitate itself at this point, but I’m quite sure that it’s not going to help matters that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his acolytes keep calling the German government a bunch of Nazis every time they cancel one of his party’s political rallies in Germany, particularly when Erdoğan himself has all but outright banned politicking by Turkey’s opposition parties and has jailed, among many others, a journalist working for Germany’s Die Welt newspaper, on the crime of, essentially, Doing Journalism.


At LobeLog, Iran analyst Farideh Farhi reports on Iranian principlists and their effort to coalesce behind a single candidate in this year’s presidential election. Fractiousness on the conservative side is often blamed for Hassan Rouhani’s surprise election in 2013, though Rouhani won so overwhelmingly (without needed to go to a runoff) that this explanation is not very compelling. Still, in a year when the incumbent Rouhani is vulnerable per polling, conservatives still seem to be unable to pick one standard-bearer:

The inability to offer concrete suggestions is not surprising. The alliance is made up of a motley crew of individuals and groups with unclear points of view particularly on how to approach Iran’s economic woes, which is the core issue of this election. The Front’s membership ranges from the older established conservative alliances, such as the Followers of Imam and Leadership Line (itself consisting of 18 groups), to newer groups such as Yekta, which is mostly composed of ministers who served under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. It doesn’t include the circle around the former president himself as well as the hardline Steadfastness Front that draws inspiration from the cleric Mohammad Taqi Mesbah Yazdi, who questions the wisdom of relying on popular choice to run the country. Whoever ends up becoming the candidate of choice will then announce his positions, which those who chose him may or may not like.

The lack of clarity regarding policies has plagued all political parties and groups in Iran as the result of an atrophied political process that focuses on the character and political tendencies of individual candidates. What those tendencies mean in terms of actual policy proposals is rarely discussed. According to former deputy Speaker of the Parliament and current secretary of the Followers of Imam and Leadership Line, Mohammad-Reza Bahonar, about “400 political parties have received permits from the Interior Ministry but 350 are only papers in some individuals’ pockets” and out of the 50 remaining, only 30 became active during elections. He should have added that the membership of most of these parties is not more than a couple of hundred people. But he does rightly point out that the positions and relations of the 20 “active” political parties are not clear either. “Whether you call me Right or Principlist, [the name] entails a broad spectrum in the country [so that] when a Friday Prayer Leader speaks somewhere in the country we are held responsible for his words. This is while neither I can be responsive for his words nor he for mine,” he stated.

One previously mentioned candidate, Mashhad shrine custodian Ebrahim Raisi, seems like he’s not going to run, and given that he’s often talked about as Iran’s next Supreme Leader, it’s probably not surprising that he would prefer to stay out of the fray until that job opens up. He’d previously expressed what seemed like a qualified willingness to run, but only if the aforementioned conservative factions all aligned behind him. That doesn’t seem to have happened.

The Iranian military successfully tested another ballistic missile today, this one sea-launched, which is likely to cause another round of tough talk and sanctions threats in Washington.


The death toll from yesterday’s attack on a military hospital in Kabul has risen to 49. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, a claim that Afghan authorities are investigating.


Pakistani authorities have reclosed their border with Afghanistan out of security concerns, after having opened it for two days to allow people stranded on either side to get home.


If you, like me, are still pretty new to Myanmar, and if you, like me, are still frequently unsure where exactly Myanmar’s dizzying array of ethnic groups–most of whom seem to have some level of beef with the government–are located, then this map from Al Jazeera should be of great interest to you.


Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines are preparing to launch joint patrols in their shared sea lanes in an effort to counter Abu Sayyaf. The Philippine-based extremist group, which has pledged allegiance to ISIS, has been staying in business by kidnapping foreign nationals at sea, holding them for ransom, and occasionally executing them when it doesn’t get paid.


Arms control expert Jeffrey Lewis makes a compelling argument in Foreign Policy that Pyongyang has stopped testing its potential nuclear weapons and has started practicing for a preemptive nuclear strike:

In the past, North Korea tested all its No-dong missiles out of a single military test site near a village of the same name. (Why, yes, the U.S. analysts did name the missiles after the town. The emasculating quality was a pure coincidence, I am sure.) These tests were designed to demonstrate that the Scud and No-dong missiles worked. They were tests in the literal sense of the word.

In recent years, however, North Korea has started launching Scuds and No-dongs from different locations all over the damn country. These aren’t missile tests, they are military exercises. North Korea knows the missiles work. What the military units are doing now is practicing — practicing for a nuclear war.

The North Koreans haven’t exactly been coy about this. Last year, North Korea tested a No-dong missile. Afterward, North Korea published a map showing that the missile was fired to a point at sea that was the exact range as South Korea’s port city of Busan, with an arc running from the target into the ocean, down to Busan. In case you missed the map, the North Koreans spelled it out: “The drill was conducted by limiting the firing range under the simulated conditions of making preemptive strikes at ports and airfields in the operational theater in South Korea where the U.S. imperialists’ nuclear war hardware is to be hurled.”

Nine Malaysian citizens are still stuck in North Korea, victims of the diplomatic spat between the two nations over the murder of Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur a couple of weeks ago.


ex-South Korean President Park Geun-hye (Wikimedia |

Park Geun-hye is now officially the former President of South Korea, after that country’s constitutional court upheld her impeachment conviction Friday morning (time zones). Park, who was impeached over what remains one of the weirdest political scandals I’ve ever seen, may find herself facing criminal charges now that she can no longer claim executive immunity. South Korea, meanwhile, now has 60 days before a special election to elect a new president. Moon Jae-in, a parliament member who lost the 2012 election to Park, seems to be the front-runner.


In order to get back the oil terminals at al-Sidra and Ras Lanuf from the Benghazi Defense Brigades, Khalifa Haftar may need to tone down the dictator show and make some concessions to the Government of National Accord in Tripoli. At least that’s my takeaway from this bit of a larger Al Jazeera analysis:

Haftar has engaged in a power struggle with Tripoli that has strongly weakened prospects for a unification of the country. Last month, he reportedly refused to meet Sarraj in Cairo in an Egypt-led effort to discuss a plan to end the conflict in Libya.

“Haftar’s refusal to meet with Sarraj in Cairo has led his external allies [Egypt/Emirates] to withdraw from the air strikes campaign against rival groups,” explained Khair Omar, a Libyan political science professor at Sakarya University.

The loss of that air power seems to have been one of the decisive factors that allowed the BDB to take the two oil terminals–it’s now threatening a third, at Brega–another being that some of Haftar’s allies on the ground have begun to have second thoughts about fighting under his banner. Between Haftar’s increasingly dictatorial behavior and his recent flirtation with Moscow, it seems he’s starting to burn too many bridges for his own good.


For better or worse, President Muhammadu Buhari is finally returning to Nigeria from his lengthy medical stay in the UK.


The UN’s Burundi adviser, Jamal Benomar, is warning that the humanitarian situation in that country is getting worse. The fallout from President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to seek an unconstitutional third term in 2015 has never entirely dissipated, and Benomar says that members of the political opposition are still disappearing or turning up dead.


As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve stopped trying to divine any deeper meaning from Germany’s very noisy (not to mention very early) polls leading up to this September’s election. That said, however, even the polls that continue to show Angela Merkel’s conservative coalition in the lead, like this one, are starting to suggest that it’s losing ground to the center-left Social Democrats. We’ll see if the trend holds.

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