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NightWatch 20150223

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For the night of 23 February 2015

Afghanistan: The chief of Shah Joy District in southern Zabol Province said that an armed group kidnapped 30 passengers from a tour bus. The district chief told the press that the gunmen were fighters and supporters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Witnesses also said the gunmen were dressed in black and spoke a foreign language.

The district chief said that most of those kidnapped belong to the Hazara tribe who were returning from Iran and were heading to Kabul and then to their respective home provinces.

Comment: Most members of the Hazara tribe are Shia. The tribe is dominant in Bamiyan Province in central Afghanistan, west of Kabul. When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they systematically suppressed the Hazaras for being Shia. They would be likely targets for kidnapping by Sunni Islamic militants. Nevertheless, the identity of the attackers has not been confirmed. The attack could have been related to a local dispute.

Provincial officials from Zabol reported the presence of ISIL recruiters and organizers in the province a month ago, according to Afghan press. If confirmed, this would the first report of an ISIL presence in Shah Joy District. It also would make Shah Joy the 5th district of the eleven in Zabol Province that has reported an ISIL presence. Nationwide, authorities have reported ISIL organizers in 23 of more than 400 districts.

Heretofore, all reports of ISIL activity in Afghanistan indicated members were recruiting and building a support infrastructure. This report could indicate at least one group has transitioned to operational status.

Syria-Syrian Kurdistan: Middle Eastern press reported today that Syrian Kurdish fighters have advanced against ISIL in northeastern Syria. Kurdish officials said the Kurds are conducting multiple separate actions to retake control of Hasakah Governate and to reach the Iraqi border. The Kurds said they continue to have Allied air support, as during the fight for Kobani.

Comment: After liberating Kobani, Syrian Kurdish leaders said they intended to liberate several hundred Kurdish villages in the surrounding area and in other Kurdish areas. The push eastward would help establish a contiguous Kurdish zone from Kobani to the Iraqi border, under Allied air cover.

In 2011, the Syrian Kurds announced that their region, including Hasakah Governate, was self-governing, though still part of Syria. The Ba'athist government in Damascus reportedly withdrew Syrian army forces from the region, in a temporary concession to necessity. The Syrian Kurds appear to be trying to at least restore control of that region.

One account said that Iraqi peshmerga artillery, fired from Iraq, supported the Syrian Kurdish operation to reach the border. For decades, all the states that have large Kurdish populations - Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria - have pursued policies crafted to prevent the Kurds from cooperating across national boundaries. Possibilities for expanded cooperation among the Kurds are one of the unanticipated consequences of ISIL's siege of Kobani.

Ukraine: Ukrainian officials said they cannot start withdrawing heavy weapons from the front line in the east, as required by the terms of the 12 February ceasefire, because the rebels continue their attacks. They said the rebels violated the ceasefire 27 times overnight. The rebels claimed Ukrainian soldiers violated the ceasefire 30 times.

Authorities said the Kyiv government fears that the rebels, backed by reinforcements of Russian troops, are planning to advance deeper into the Ukrainian territory that Russian President Putin called "New Russia."

The daily situation map published on 23 February by the Information Analysis Center of the National Security and Defence Council shows very little fighting.

Comment: The daily situation map does not back up the statements by the political leaders. The explosion symbols indicate areas of rebel shelling. The only symbol indicating clashes between the forces is in the southern town of Shyrokyne. Open sources have provided few details of that fighting. The proximity to Mariupol suggests it has some connection to rebel plans along the coast.

The government's reluctance or refusal to withdraw weapons might be a ruse to hide the extent of its losses and the actual capabilities of Ukrainian forces, after last week's defeat at Debal'tseve.

Gloating. The leader of the rebel regime in Donetsk, Zakharchenko, boasted about the defeat of the Ukrainian forces. .

"In fact, Poroshenko (the Ukrainian President) is our ally. The amount of military equipment that he left for us in the Debal'tseve pocket is already incomparable to that of the Ilovaysk pocket (sic). In the last 24 hours of fighting alone, 33 tanks were destroyed or seized."

"Over the five days of fighting in the Debal'tseve pocket, we got our hands on about 170 tanks. Most of them are operational or can be made operational -- about 50 gun barrels; and we have not even counted mortars. We are still filling railway cars with ammunition to take it away. Therefore, our main ally is the president of Ukraine and the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces."

Zakharchenko also said rebels captured US-made radio jamming equipment, counter-battery radars, some rifles and artillery ammunition and some items that his soldiers could not "figure out." He said "slightly more than 30" rebel fighters were killed in the operation to seize Debal'tseve.

Comment: An examination of the Ukrainian military behavior and official statements indicates that the Ukrainian army is spent for now. If that conclusion is accurate, the rebels might be able to seize more territory with little resistance. That is the potential significance of the fighting at Shyrokyne.

Russia-Ukraine: In a new interview for Russian TV aired today, the reporter asked Russian President Putin whether there was a real threat of war because of the situation in eastern Ukraine.

Putin answered, "I think that such an apocalyptic scenario is unlikely and I hope this will never happen." He said that if the Minsk agreement was implemented, eastern Ukraine would "gradually stabilize….Europe is just as interested in that as Russia. No-one wants conflict on the edge of Europe, especially armed conflict."

"The point is that today's - in my view, I am not suggesting anything - today's government of a big European country such as Ukraine should first and foremost return the country to a normal life, fix the economy, the social sector, establish its relations with the country's southeast in a civil manner, and provide statutory rights and interests for the people living, say, in Donbass.

Comment: President Putin always has ulterior motives, but in stressing normality and stability he is saying the right words to ease the immediate concerns of the Europeans. He has taken their measure and has concluded that stability is more important to them than territory in southeastern Ukraine. What Putin said on TV seldom has matched developments on the ground in southeastern Ukraine.

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End of NightWatch for 23 February.

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