Conflict update: March 11-12 2017


So let’s start with the good news: Turkey and the Netherlands haven’t declared war on each other. Yet. As far as I know. But the good news pretty much ends there. On Saturday, Dutch authorities took the fairly provocative step–look, I give Recep Tayyip Erdoğan a lot of shit around here, but I don’t think you can fairly describe what happened here as routine diplomacy–of actually preventing a plane carrying Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu from landing in Rotterdam as planned, and then detained Turkey’s family affairs minister, Fatma Betül Sayan Kaya, to prevent her from addressing the same referendum campaign rally that Çavuşoğlu was supposed to attend. Kaya was eventually deported to Germany.

I get that anti-immigrant fervor is high in the Netherlands right now and that the country is about to have an election this week that will turn largely on that issue. I also get why the government of any European country would be uneasy about hosting Turkish political rallies in general, but particularly in favor of a referendum whose purpose is basically to strip Turkish democracy for spare parts. But you don’t get to deny landing rights to a plane carrying a diplomat from an ostensible ally, and you certainly don’t get to just go around detaining and deporting government ministers from ostensible allies when they haven’t actually done anything illegal. The mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, said that Kaya and the Turkish consulate had lied to him about the purpose of her visit, but that still doesn’t excuse the treatment it seems she received.

Ankara did its usual thing, with Erdoğan calling the Dutch government “Nazis” and threatening unspecified retribution, like the Janissaries are going to be riding through downtown Amsterdam by the end of the week or something. Whatever Ankara does to punish the Netherlands won’t be much because it can’t be much. The biggest club in Erdoğan’s bag with respect to Europe is turning Syrian refugees loose in the Balkans, and that won’t affect the Netherlands very much, if at all. Some, including Çavuşoğlu, have mentioned possible sanctions, but that’s an arms race Turkey may not be able to win–if they push too far, there’s a small but not that small chance that the European Union could reexamine Turkey’s EU accession agreements in ways that would substantially hurt Turkish nationals living in other European countries. The Turkish government has called on “international organizations” to sanction Amsterdam for its actions, but that seems unlikely. The only blowback so far has been against Turkey–the government of Denmark announced that a visit scheduled for next weekend by Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım will now be postponed.


On Saturday, two suicide attacks struck the Bab al-Saghir area of Damascus, killing somewhere between 40 (the government estimate) and 74 (according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights) people. Bab al-Saghir (“the small gate”) is, as its name suggests, one of the seven gates in the wall of Damascus’s “old city,” and the area is home to a cemetery that includes shrines to a number of prominent figures in Shiʿism (children of imams, that sort of thing). That was, presumably, the target. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (“Committee for the Liberation of Syria”), the alliance of extremist groups led by Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, claimed credit for the bombing and said it was intended to send a message to Tehran about its involvement in Syria.

Bashar al-Assad did an interview with Chinese TV this weekend in which he gushed about the close ties between Damascus and Beijing and dangled the huge carrot of a big Chinese role in rebuilding Syria after the war is over. The interview comes just after China joined Russia in vetoing a UN Security Council measure that would have sanctioned Assad’s government for its probable use of chemical weapons during the civil war, and when China appears to be getting more involved in the war on Assad’s side, partly because Assad has always had decent relations with Beijing but also because the Chinese government is concerned about Uyghurs who have left Xinjiang to fight with Syrian jihadi forces. In the same interview, Assad said he’s “hopeful” about the Trump administration but characterized new US forces being deployed to eastern Syria as an “invasion.”

The next round of Astana peace talks, scheduled to be held this week, now may be postponed. Syrian rebels have asked for more time to see if Assad abides by a new ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta, a Damascus suburb that has seen heavy fighting in recent weeks.

Washington may have decided to postpone announcing its plans for Raqqa until after the Turkish referendum in April. Remember when Donald Trump said he was going to give those damn generals 30 days to come up with a plan to defeat ISIS or else? Yeah, neither does Trump. If this is in fact what’s happening, it would seem to suggest that the US is indeed going to use the Kurdish YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces as its main proxy in the Raqqa operation, but is trying to appease Ankara by postponing the announcement in order to avoid making Erdoğan look bad before his big day. That postponement doesn’t mean we’re just leaving Raqqa alone, as some 22 civilians unfortunately learned today when coalition airstrikes on villages on the outskirts of the city killed them.

In Manbij, US-Turkey relations are going backwards and American involvement in Syria may be escalating, as US forces are literally patrolling the streets of the city in an effort to deter Turkey from attacking the Kurds there. Russia, meanwhile, was largely responsible for negotiating the deal whereby the SDF handed several villages outside of Manbij over to the Syrian army, a move that left Turkey boxed in, unable to move its forces without drastically escalating hostilities with Syria (and, therefore, Russia). In short, by threatening to attack Manbij after it captured al-Bab, Ankara may have finally put Washington and Moscow in total alignment with each other on something related to Syria.


Maan al-Saadi, a Major General in Iraq’s elite Counter Terrorism unit, estimated for reporters today that Iraqi forces have liberated 17 of western Mosul’s 40 districts, or a bit more than 40 percent. Some caution is required here. The Iraqis seem to have a pattern of getting ahead of themselves in these kinds of statements, though to be fair that’s partly due to the fact that ISIS’s extensive tunnel network allows it to reinfiltrate areas that were thought to have been cleared of resistance. Also, all districts are not created equal. Some of those 17 liberated districts are sparsely populated areas in the southern part of the city, and the heaviest fighting is going to take place in the heavily populated central and northern parts of the city, so just because the Iraqis may have liberated 40 percent of the city’s districts that does not mean 40 percent of the battle is over.

As always, and particularly on weekends when I take a night off, you should read Joel Wing’s Musings on Iraq blog for the blow by blow at the neighborhood level.

One of the Popular Mobilization Units militias has uncovered a mass grave outside the Badush prison, northwest of Mosul. ISIS reportedly carried out a mass execution of mostly Shiʿa prisoners at that facility on the same day it captured Mosul in 2014, and this may be direct evidence of that crime.


I briefly mentioned this on Friday because I’d seen initial reports about it but no more than that, but a Saudi airstrike that day on a market in the town of Khawkhah, close to the major port city of Hudaydah, killed at least 22 civilians.


A devaluation of the pound has sent food prices skyrocketing at the same time the Egyptian government is cutting back on food and fuel subsidies. The result? Fears of another outbreak of mass protest akin to the 2011 protests–also brought on by high food prices–that ousted Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak didn’t go without a fight, and I imagine that Abdel Fattah el-Sisi will, if faced with the same problem, try to outdo Mubarak in terms of protester body count. Austerity: the cause of and solution to all of life’s problems.

Contributing mightily to the country’s economic problems is its rapid population growth:

Cairo’s population is set to grow by 500,000 this year, more than any other city in the world, adding to the pressure on an Egyptian economy struggling to recover from six years of political turmoil.

Greater Cairo, a metropolitan area including Cairo and parts of the Giza and Qalyubia provinces, is home to some 22.8 million people and will gain another half a million in 2017, a Euromonitor International report released last week shows.

That represents a quarter of Egypt’s 92 million. The national natural population growth of 2.4 percent per year is double the average of other developing countries, said Mohamed Abdelgalil, adviser to official statistics agency CAPMAS.

Large rural families lead to lots of children migrating to the big city in search of work, but I can tell you from personal experience that Cairo was overcrowded in 2004, let alone in 2017, so clearly something is going to have to give. In 2015 the government announced plans to build a new “administrative capital” just east of Cairo, so ideally that new area would be able to siphon some people away from Cairo and ease the overcrowding problem. But ultimately people are going to need jobs, or else the big question with respect to another 2011-like uprising will be when, not if, it will happen.


A small protest in Ramallah on Sunday turned violent when Palestinian police intervened with tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons to break up the demonstration and arrest its leaders. The protesters were demonstrating against the planned prosecution of six Palestinians who were arrested by the Palestinian Authority in 2016 on charges of conspiring to attack an Israeli target. They were released on bail, but one was later killed by Israeli police and four others are now in Israeli custody. The PA says it is going to go ahead with their prosecution anyway, hence the protests.


On Saturday, three gunmen attacked a military air base in Khost province, and two policemen in Zabul province reportedly killed eight of their colleagues and defected to the Taliban.


Maoist (!) rebels are believed to be behind an attack on Saturday in central India’s Chhattisgarh state that killed 11 commandos who had been contracted as private security for a road construction project.


Tensions are high on the India-Nepal border after Indian forces killed a Nepali man last Thursday while he was participating in a protest against the Indian military presence in a disputed border area. On Friday, much larger protests were held along the border and in front of the Indian embassy in Kathmandu.


The Malaysian government is blocking some 315 North Korean nationals from leaving the country until North Korea agrees to release the three Malaysian embassy workers and their families (nine people in total) that it’s keeping in North Korea, all because of the ongoing fallout from the murder of Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur airport a month ago. Negotiations on the release of those Malaysians, and on the disposition of Kim’s body (Pyongyang is still refusing to acknowledge that it was Kim Jong-nam who was killed), are expected this week.


The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, probably the largest insurgent group in the country, has reportedly released “hundreds” of child soldiers in fulfillment of a 2009 agreement with the UN to, over time, end the practice of using children in combat. There appears to be a wider opening for negotiations between Manila and the MILF (yes, I know), but President Rodrigo Duterte has been distracted by other priorities, like the feel of a knife when it bites deep into human flesh a recent flare-up in the country’s ~50 year communist insurgency. There’s some good news on that front, though, as the communist coalition and the government reached an agreement on Sunday to reestablish the ceasefire that expired last month in advance of a new round of negotiations in April.


The Libyan civil war appears to be on the brink of reigniting for reals. The Benghazi Defense Brigades and their Misratan allies have handed control of the oil port at al-Sidra and the refinery at Ras Lanuf to the Government of National Accord in Tripoli, meaning that if/when Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army tries to retake those terminals, it will now be directly attacking the GNA.


Gabon’s main political opposition leader, Jean Ping, is planning to boycott proposed talks with President Ali Bongo scheduled for later this month. Bongo won reelection in August under questionable circumstances, according to international observers, and then violently put down protests that followed the vote.


Two Ukrainian soldiers were killed on Saturday along with one Donetsk separatist, in the latest skirmish in eastern Ukraine. Both sides accused the other of using heavy weapons, which are supposed to have been pulled off of the front lines in an effort to east tensions.

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