Conflict update: March 13 2017


A few hours ago Ankara turned its diplomatic dispute with the Netherlands up to 11 by barring the Dutch ambassador from returning to Turkey and announcing that it was suspending diplomatic relations with Amsterdam. The Turkish government further said that it was closing its airspace to Dutch diplomats and that it would pursue action at the European Court of Human Rights over the treatment of its cabinet minister, and Turkish nationals who demonstrated over that treatment, in Rotterdam over the weekend. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan then accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of “supporting terrorists,” without getting more specific but probably meaning the PKK, after Merkel had expressed support for Dutch actions over the weekend.

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern reiterated that his country would also not be amenable to hosting an AKP campaign rally, so expect him to be Erdoğan’s Nazi of the Day tomorrow. And I think it’s important to understand that while it might seem like Erdoğan is about two days away from his head literally exploding, in reality I don’t think this could be working out any better for him. Erdoğan’s political appeal has long centered on the idea that he was the only person who could protect Turkey from its enemies, whether domestic (Gülenists, the PKK, the Deep State) or foreign (America, Europe, Russia, Israel, international banking wink wink). In the middle of a close race on a referendum to decide whether or not to give him dictator-esque levels of power within the Turkish state, what better rallying call could Erdoğan want than a full-on diplomatic war with Europe? And since Erdoğan has systematically eliminated any sort of dissenting or even objective media, there’s nobody inside Turkey to challenge his “everybody vs. Turkey” narrative between now and the referendum.

The European Union is even feeding into this narrative by “warning” Ankara that the passage of the referendum could endanger Turkey’s chances of ever becoming an EU member. Erdoğan doesn’t even really want EU membership, but he’ll gladly take the EU warning, spin it as a provocation against the Turkish people, and turn it into a political advantage for himself.


The flip side of this coin is that the events of this weekend have also been a big boost for fascist cesspool Geert Wilders and his Party for (White People’s) Freedom:

With two days to go until the Dutch vote in a pivotal parliamentary election, pollster Maurice De Hond found that the spat between the Netherlands and Turkey, and Saturday’s night of rioting by ethnic Turks in Rotterdam, had benefited the two parties that have been most skeptical on immigration.

The poll showed Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s pro-business VVD party on track to win 27 seats in the 150-seat parliament with 18 percent of the vote, three more than in the pollster’s last survey, published on Sunday but taken before the weekend.

Geert Wilders’s anti-Muslim Freedom Party was in second place with 16 percent, or up two seats to 24.

Wilders is trying to make more hay by demanding the expulsion of the Turkish ambassador. Now that Ankara has drawn first blood on that front Wilders may be able to get a lot of mileage out of this argument in the run up to Wednesday’s election, unless Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte does expel the ambassador (which would then invite continued escalation with Turkey).

Wilders is unlikely to be the next prime minister of the Netherlands, and he’s a longshot even to have a role in the country’s next government. No party is going to win an outright majority on Wednesday, and Wilders is so toxic that there’s almost no chance he and his party will be asked to join a coalition. But as Foreign Policy’s James Traub writes, Wilders has owned this campaign and has brought his loathsome xenophobia right smack into the mainstream of Dutch politics. The “center-right” is likely to maintain its hold on the government, but it’s had to incorporate a bit of Wilders’ white nationalism in order to do so.


Offensive operations in western Mosul ground largely to a halt today, with Iraqi forces advancing on Mosul’s Old City, as bad weather limited Iraqi visibility and air support. Instead, the Iraqis hunkered down and rode out ISIS’s mortar and sniper attacks. The Iraqis are working on capturing the western end of the Iron Bridge, which will be the third of the five bridges across the Tigris that the Iraqis have captured. But weather or no, this is where the west Mosul operation was expected to slow down, as narrow streets and dense civilian populations limit the effectiveness of Iraqi armor, artillery, and air support. The Iraqis are fighting house to house at this point, which is a scenario that is challenging for any army.

The complexities of western Mosul are also causing a higher rate of civilian casualties than was seen in eastern Mosul:

That anyone still lives in the ruins is a measure of how desperate the situation has become.   The Iraqi army says it has carried out 3,780 sorties against Isil in northern Iraq since the offensive to liberate Mosul began, which averages out to almost 30 a day. The US, which is supporting Iraqi forces, has conducted more than double that.

“They dropped leaflets over the city telling us not to worry about the strikes, saying that they were extremely precise and would not hurt the civilians,” says Mr Ahmed, 47. “Now it feels like the coalition is killing more people than Isil.”

He said he thought as many as 300 people had been killed in raids during the battle to liberate Samood and his late brother’s neighbourhood al-Mansour. It was difficult to immediately verify the claim. A recent report by Airwars, a UK-based organisation which monitors international air strikes against Isil, suggested as many as 370 civilian deaths could be attributed to coalition raids in the first week of March alone.

To some extent these casualties are unavoidable at this point, but there is no question that civilian casualties now will reverberate long after Mosul has been liberated.


Peace talks in Astana are going to proceed as scheduled starting tomorrow, but the Syrian opposition won’t be there:

Osama Abu Zaid, a spokesman for the rebels said they had taken a final decision not to go to the talks as a result of Russia’s failure to end what the opposition says are widespread violations of a Turkish-Russian brokered ceasefire last December.

“Currently the decision is not to go as a result of Russia continuing its crimes in Syria against civilians and its support of the crimes of the Syrian regime,” he said, adding that they had informed Turkey, a main backer of the rebels, of their decision.

Not coincidentally, the Syrian army has advanced deeper into rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, which is the kind of thing that tends to make people question your commitment to a ceasefire. On the plus side, I guess, Damascus also reached a deal with the last remaining rebels in the city of Homs that will see those rebels either evacuated to other rebel-held areas or granted amnesty. These localized surrenders amount to forced evacuation, which is a war crime, but since the alternative in this conflict has generally been siege and starvation, well, I suppose you have to take what you can get.

Elsewhere, the Turkish government announced that it has taken a handful of towns outside Manbij from ISIS. Manbij is the place where the entire anti-ISIS aspect of the Syrian conflict is most likely to collapse under its myriad internal contradictions, so anything that happens in the vicinity is worth noting.

UNICEF says that 2016 was the deadliest year yet for children in Syria. This isn’t a huge surprise given the Aleppo fighting and the number of schools that were bombed last year all over the country, but the fact that hundreds more children were conscripted into combat last year is obviously a very disturbing finding.


The growth of the ISIS-linked Khalid b. al-Walid Army in southern Syria has put Jordanian authorities on alert. The group has apparently been able to seize artillery from the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front that has enough range, in theory, to hit a couple of large northern Jordanian cities. There’s also a fear that the Syria-Jordan border could become ISIS’s new base of operations when Mosul and Raqqa fall. Amman could opt to carry out airstrikes in southern Syria if it feels the threat is great enough.


Here’s a very good look at the southern Yemeni independence movement, Hirak, from analyst Brian Perkins. One of the ironies of the Yemeni civil war is that the Houthis and Hirak are on opposite sides despite sharing some very similar attitudes with respect to regional autonomy from Sanaa. And, in fact, until the Houthis ousted Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi and began laying waste to southern Yemen while pursuing Hadi from Sanaa to Aden, the two groups were sympathetic to one another. Hirak forces now make up a sizeable component of the “pro-Hadi” forces, but they’re only pro-Hadi insofar as they’re anti-Houthi. Unless there’s a negotiated settlement to the civil war that institutes a considerable amount of regional autonomy for groups like the Hirak and the Houthis, and that seems unlikely, you can expect the Houthis’ defeat–if and when that happens–to be quickly followed by a new conflict over southern independence.


A roadside bomb exploded in Kabul today, killing at least one person on a bus carrying government employees. It’s not clear who set the bomb, though roadside explosives are a Taliban staple, but the more important point is that the Afghan capital is looking especially vulnerable these days, after last week’s ISIS-claimed hospital attack.


The UN’s special rapporteur for human rights in Myanmar, Yanghee Lee, is pushing for a full commission of inquiry to investigate ethnic cleansing charges relating to Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya. Unfortunately support for such a step, which doesn’t sound like much but is actually a big deal as far as the UN is concerned, is still insufficient. Most European countries are still in the GIVE AUNG SAN SUU KYI A CHANCE camp, even though she’s long since stopped deserving one, but they fear that a commission that–rightly–accuses the Myanmar military of crimes against humanity might destabilize the country’s civilian government. You may wonder what the point of civilian government is if it can’t even stop a genocide, but, um, I’m sure there is one. Let me think about it.

Interestingly, a couple of days ago Myanmar’s highest Buddhist authority decided to ban prominent monk Ashin Wirathu from delivering sermons for one year, through March 2018. Wirathu, exhibit 1A in favor of the proposition that there are Buddhist assholes in the world, specializes in hate speech and Islamophobia. He is the spiritual guru of the Rohingya genocide as well as other hate crimes against Myanmar Muslims, like the murder of lawyer and Suu Kyi pal Ko Ni in January. That murder likely caused Wirathu’s ban and could over time spur increased sensitivity about anti-Muslim hate speech.


President Rodrigo Duterte has reportedly ordered his navy to begin building “structures” in the Benham Rise, a region that lies within the Philippines’ continental shelf but that has, let’s say, drawn interest from China. Duterte has been trying hard to improve relations with China, especially since Beijing doesn’t nag you about silly bullshit like your penchant for murdering drug users. It will be interesting to see if this undoes some of that work.


Reuters is reporting that Russia has deployed special forces to a base in western Egypt that may be used to aid eastern Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar in his battle against the Benghazi Defense Forces and, possibly, against the internationally recognized Government of National Accord in Tripoli. The Egyptian government is denying the report, but Haftar and Moscow have been warming to each other lately, Haftar and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi are allied, and Vladimir Putin is keen on building up ties with both Egypt and Libya.

If those Russian forces are there to aid Haftar, he needs it. Not only has he lost control of two of the country’s largest oil facilities to the Benghazi Defense Brigades, but his forces are reportedly taking a beating in Benghazi itself.


A December ruling by the European Court of Justice is threatening to throw EU-Morocco relations into a tailspin, which could open up a whole new path for African migrants trying to get to Europe. The ECJ ruling, on an agricultural trade deal, made a distinction between Moroccan territory and Western Sahara, which Morocco claims as its territory even though that claim is resisted by many Sahrawis, including the Polisario Front. It’s made it difficult for the EU to continue its traditional “look the other way” policy with respect to Western Sahara, which it doesn’t formally recognize as part of Morocco. The fear from Brussels’ perspective is that if ties with Morocco weaken, the Moroccan government could decide to look the other way as well, when it comes to those migrants.


Today I found a new blog on the Sahel by Georgetown professor Alex Thurston (as an aside, if you operate or know of a blog you think I should be reading, please let me know) that I highly recommend. His take on the big al-Qaeda merger in Mali is a few days old now but definitely worth a mention:

Second, the anti-Islamic State message is not explicit, but neither is it hard to detect in the video. The video opens with the first part of Qur’an 3:103, “Hold firmly to God’s rope together and do not become divided.” That verse has been a key part of the Islamic State’s messaging to jihadis, as the Islamic State proclaims the need for unity. Jihadis pledging allegiance to the Islamic State, including breakaway units of AQIM, have invoked the verse to justify their decision to rally to the Islamic State’s banner. AQIM and its new (old) Saharan leader is making the same argument, except to say that al-Qaida should be the focal point of intra-jihadist unity. In that sense, the video may be aimed partly at defectors from AQIM to Islamic State, with the implication that they should rejoin the fold. That fits with prior AQIM statements, such as a 2016 interview with Abu al-Hammam (dead link, so I won’t post it) which frame the al-Qaida/Islamic State conflict as a kind of family dispute.


At least six people were killed today in a likely al-Shabab vehicle bombing in Mogadishu. Al-Shabab has been in a state of heightened activity lately over the election of new President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed and, perhaps, over an increased ISIS presence in the country.


I highly recommend this long piece from The Guardian on Oromo unrest in Ethiopia, stemming from plans to expand Addis Ababa into traditionally Oromo land. The repressive response by the government set back movement toward a more open political system in Ethiopia and mean a retrenchment of authoritarianism.


Rwandan authorities say that gunmen killed two Rwandans today and then fled across the border into Burundi. Amid the tensions within Burundi the possibility of a conflict between these two states–Burundi has accused Rwanda of training Burundian rebels, which the Rwandan government denies–looms in the background.


The UN says it has reports of mutilated bodies being discovered recently in Burundi. This is a phenomenon that has cropped up periodically over the past 2-3 years while the country has been wracked with political violence. It’s not clear who’s responsible or why these mutilations keep happening, other than that they do seem to be related to the country’s political chaos.


A couple of European environmental groups are warning that fighting in eastern Ukraine has come near enough to major industrial areas in the region to risk a major chemical/environmental catastrophe.


Parliament gave Prime Minister Theresa May the authorization to invoke Article 50 and begin Brexiting for real today, after the House of Commons voted to reject two House of Lords amendments to the authorization bill and the House of Lords decided not to contest that decision. Brexit minister David Davis promised to take “moral responsibility” for ensuring the rights of EU nationals currently in the UK, which was the subject of one of those amendments, and apparently enough members of the House of Lords fell for that bullshit that the body agreed to drop its amendment.

Coincidentally, the Scottish National Party and Sinn Fein called for quick referendums on independence for Scotland and Northern Ireland, respectively. Sinn Fein has an uphill climb since opinion polling has never shown much support in Northern Ireland for leaving the UK, though there’s no telling how Brexit may have changed that opinion. The SNP, on the other hand, has a pretty strong case for holding another referendum, since the last one was close enough (just over 10 points) that Brexit may very well have tipped public opinion into the “independence” camp. It’s not clear when, or even if, Scotland will see another referendum, but May seems prepared to block Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s call for an independence referendum before Brexit takes effect. The feeling is that a referendum during Brexit negotiations could hurt May’s ability to wring concessions out of Brussels.

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