Today in Middle Eastern history: Jordan's Black September begins (1970)

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King Hussein of Jordan (center) meeting with Prime Minister Wasfi Tal and Army Chief of Staff Habis Al-Majali (left) on the first day of Black September fighting (Wikimedia Commons)

Anybody familiar with the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre might wonder if the title of this post refers to the Palestinian “Black September” terrorist organization that perpetrated that attack, and the answer is

"Black September," the organization, never would have existed if it weren't for "Black September," the event, which began on September 16, 1970 in Jordan. At the very least it would have had to pick another name.

Prior to September 1970, tensions had been on rise for many years between the Hashemite monarchy of Jordan and the country's majority Palestinian population. Jordan had become home to large numbers of Palestinians in the wake of the formation of Israel—and subsequent Arab-Israeli War—in 1948, which created a lot of Palestinian refugees and resulted in Jordan annexing the West Bank. When Israel seized the West Bank after the 1967 Six-Day War, still more Palestinian refugees made their way across the Jordan River. Jordan's King Hussein elected to welcome these Palestinian refugees into his kingdom with open arms and do all he could to incorporate them into Jordanian society…sorry, I drifted off into an alternate reality there for a few seconds. King Hussein treated those refugees the way pretty much everybody treats refugees, as parasites who are simultaneously a do-nothing drag on the nation and an acute threat to national security.

Before you come down too hard on the now-deceased king, Hussein's problems with the Palestinians were not entirely imagined. This was a somewhat unique refugee situation in that Palestinians actually outnumbered Jordanians in Jordan. That fact made many Jordanians uncomfortable, even though in the 1950s the whole notion of "Palestinians" as a national identity distinct from "Jordanians" was still a pretty new idea. Worse, Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Liberation Organization had a habit of launching attacks against Israel from refugee camps inside Jordanian territory, which led to Israeli reprisals against those camps and, therefore, against Jordan.

Hussein ordered the PLO to knock off the cross-border attacks, but they more or less ignored him. Which they could afford to do in part because, to reiterate, there were more Palestinians than Jordanians in Jordan, so if anything the PLO had a larger political base than the king. Hussein's security forces secretly worked with the Israelis to try to clamp down on border security, though for obviously reasons this wasn't something Hussein wanted the public to know. Then came the Battle of Karamah in 1968, when the Israeli army crossed into Jordan and destroyed the Karamah refugee camp in response to a series of PLO attacks inside Israel. After Karamah, to try to ease tensions between the Palestinians and the Jordanian government, the PLO and Hussein reached an accord. In essence, the PLO pledged to stop acting like a wholly autonomous nation that was simply squatting on Jordanian territory. Among other things, the PLO was barred from printing its own ID papers, from clothing its members in military uniforms, from performing police and military functions in predominantly Palestinian areas, and from collecting taxes.

Having negotiated this new accord between the Palestinians and Jordanians, the PLO promptly went about ignoring it, and so the situation grew more tense. In February 1970, Hussein issued a number of royal edicts that attempted to restrict Palestinian behavior, which led to the outbreak of Palestinian protests against the monarchy and led the PLO to actually increase its quasi-governmental activities. Then, in early September, the PLO's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) faction carried out four hijackings in quick succession to get the rest of the world's attention, while decreeing that northwestern Jordan was henceforth "liberated."

This, as you might imagine, didn't go over too well with King Hussein. He declared martial law and sent the military to attack PLO offices in Amman as well as Palestinian camps in newly “liberated” northwestern Jordan. The Jordanian army pushed PLO paramilitaries into the mountains and killed at least a couple thousand of them, but this military success was counterbalanced by a larger diplomatic failure. Hussein, see, was handicapped by the fact that most of the Arab world was more sympathetic to the Palestinians than they were to him. There were concerns about an Iraqi intervention on the PLO’s behalf, and Syria actually invaded Jordan, which prompted Hussein to appeal to the US for help. This briefly raised tensions between the US and the USSR, which then as now was in Syria's corner, but a Jordanian Air Force counterattack drove the Syrians back over the border.

Nevertheless, the diplomatic pressure remains. And so on September 27, in Cairo, Hussein agreed to a ceasefire written by Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser that recognized the PLO's rights to operate in Jordan. Nasser, incidentally, suffered a massive heart attack and died the following day.

Nasser (middle, RIP), negotiating (dictating?) ceasefire terms with (to?) Arafat (left) and Hussein (right), in Cairo, September 1970 (Wikimedia Commons)

That was the end of Black September (the month), but not of the Jordanian-PLO conflict. Arafat agreed to abide by Hussein's rules governing the PLO's activities, but a couple of groups under the PLO umbrella, including the PFLP, simply refused to be bound by Arafat's arrangement. So the fighting picked up again in November and continued until summer 1971. Despite having sought an accord with Hussein, when the fighting resumed Arafat and his Fatah faction joined right in. Arafat began openly calling for Hussein to be deposed, saying that the Jordanian king was about to sign a peace treaty with Israel and that removing him was the only way to stop it. And he was right! King Hussein did sign a peace treaty with Israel!

In, ah, 1994.

Anyway, without some outside intervention by a stronger Arab nation, the PLO was completely out of its depth trying to take on the Jordanian army. No intervention was forthcoming, and Nasser, the one guy in the Arab world who could have probably convinced Hussein to calm down through sheer force of will, was dead. So the Jordanian army gradually mopped up Palestinian resistance, and by July the last PLO elements (including Arafat) had been expelled from Jordan and were setting up shop in their new home, Lebanon (courtesy of new Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's generous decision to allow them free passage across Syria). King Hussein's reputation in the Arab world took a major hit over the whole affair, but in the end he had reasserted full control over his kingdom, so that was probably a price he was willing to pay.

Speaking of Assad, he became president of Syria in part because of Black September. At the time, Assad was Minister of Defense and de facto leader of the country. He was engaged in a power struggle with the head of Syria's Baath Party, Salah Jadid, who as party leader was supposed to be the de facto leader of the country. Jadid had supported Syria's invasion of Jordan, and, when it failed (in part because Assad made sure it would, by refusing to involve the Syrian Air Force), the political fallout led Jadid to remove Assad from power. Well, to try to remove Assad from power. Assad responded by launching a coup, in November 1970, that ousted and imprisoned Jadid and toppled the government he'd put in place in favor of one led by Assad personally.

Black September, the organization, was established in 1971 as a wing/splinter of Fatah that could be tasked with conducting reprisal attacks in Jordan and terrorist attacks on an international scale (by which I mean in places outside of Israel-Palestine) while still giving Fatah and the PLO some deniability. It was disbanded in 1974 when the PLO decided to put the kibosh on international terrorism (but not on attacks inside Israel, of course).

In a peculiarly random bit of fallout, the events of Black September also played a major role in Pakistani history. How, you ask? Well, when Black September kicked off, there was a Pakistani military unit in Jordan conducting training exercises with the Jordanian military. It was led by a brigadier named Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. Operating on his own authority, Zia took command of a division of the Jordanian army and played a significant role in those early military successes against the PLO. Zia was almost court martialed for his actions when he got home, but he was saved by the intervention of the commander in chief of the Pakistani army, Gul Hassan Khan.

Zia's battlefield successes in Jordan were part of the reason why Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto promoted him to four-star general and Army Chief of Staff in 1976, a decision that Bhutto would regret when, oops, Zia led the 1977 coup that ousted Bhutto (and eventually led to his 1979 execution). Zia ruled Pakistan more or less dictatorially until his death in 1988 and, along the way, made his country the key pipeline for U.S. military aid going to the Afghan Mujahideen in the 1980s. It would be a stretch to blame the rise of al-Qaeda on Black September, but the two are at least connected with one another.

World update: September 14-15 2019

Stories from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and more


September 13, 533: The Byzantine general Belisarius and his army defeat the Vandals in the Battle of Ad Decium, near Carthage. This was Belisarius’s first victory in his invasion of North Africa and kicked off his campaign to restore the western empire.

September 13, 1993: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Yasser Arafat sign the Oslo I Accord in Washington, DC. Oslo I established the creation of a Palestinian government as well as provisions for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Occupied Territories and economic cooperation between the Israelis and Palestinians. It was supposed to be an interim agreement but, well, you can see how that went.

September 14, 1829: The Treaty of Adrianople ends the Ottoman-Russian War of 1828-1829. The Ottomans ceded control over the eastern shore of the Black Sea and the mouth of the Danube River, re-guaranteed Serbia’s autonomy, allowed Moldavia and Wallachia to become Russian protectorates, and paid a large settlement to the Russians.

September 14, 1960: At a meeting in Baghdad, the governments of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela agree to form the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Everything has gone really well ever since. Also on this date, with CIA help, Congolese Army Colonel Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in a bloodless coup in Kinshasa. That worked out really well too.

September 15, 994: The Fatimid Caliphate defeats a combined Byzantine-Hamdanid army at the Battle of the Orontes in what is today northwestern Syria. The victory allowed the Fatimids to wipe out the Hamdanids and add Syria to their caliphate.

September 15, 1821: The Captaincy-General of Guatemala—encompassing the modern states of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua—declares its independence from Spain. Independence day in all five of those countries.

September 15, 1894: The Imperial Japanese Army captures the city of Pyongyang from Qing Dynasty China in one of the first engagements of the First Sino-Japanese War. China opted to abandon Korea to the Japanese, and when the war ended with a Japanese victory the Korean peninsula came under Japan’s regional sphere of influence.



A car bombing in the northern Syrian border town of al-Rai killed at least ten people on Sunday. Al-Rai is occupied by rebels supported by Turkey, so speculation will likely revolve around the Kurdish YPG militia. Of course, the Islamic State is always a possibility as well. A bit further south, rebels and observers reported heavy Syrian government artillery fire over the weekend against Maarat al-Numan and surrounding areas in southern Idlib province. The government and Russia seem to be winding down the ceasefire they imposed on August 31 and chances are that Maarat al-Numan will be their next major target. Bashar al-Assad announced another amnesty for draft dodgers on Sunday provided they report for service within the next 3-6 months. It gets downplayed because they’re winning the war, but the Syrian military has been overextended for several years now and these periodic amnesties highlight its manpower challenges.


Yemeni officials say that Houthi shelling in Hudaydah and Taiz provinces over the weekend killed at least 13 civilians.


The Iraqi government on Sunday reached agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council to build a $220 million, 200 mile long transmission line that will link Iraq’s power grid to the GCC’s via Kuwait. The line will enable Iraq to import 500 MW of electricity, which is not enough to solve Iraq’s perpetual electricity shortage but can’t hurt. It can be upgraded to accommodate as much as 2 GW, which is also not enough to solve Iraq’s perpetual electricity shortage but would help substantially.

Peance Freeance Secure Iraq is now fighting a drug problem:

Last year in Basra province, Iraq’s southernmost governorate and the one with the worst drug problems, 1,400 people, almost all men, were convicted of possession or sale of illegal drugs, mostly crystal meth. More than 6,800 are in prison nationwide and that is excluding the Kurdish region, which accounts for about a fifth of Iraq’s population, according to Iraq’s Supreme Judiciary Council.

Still, that number is relatively small for a country of about 39 million. But because drug addiction has mainly struck two cities — Basra and the capital, Baghdad — it is highly visible.

And because it is a largely new problem in Iraq, neither community leaders nor government officials seem ready to deal with it other than by putting people in prison.


Benjamin Netanyahu held a cabinet meeting in the Jordan Valley on Sunday in what has to be some of the most shameless election pandering in Israeli history. Facing an election on Tuesday that promises to be just as inconclusive as the one Israel held in April, Netanyahu is scrambling to boost right-wing nationalist turnout and to make sure those voters choose his own Likud party. His new flirtation with annexing the Jordan Valley—a move that would turn the remaining Palestinian-occupied portions of the West Bank into a larger version of Israel’s open-air prison in Gaza—is the way he’s decided to achieve that. The cabinet decided to legalize a Jordan Valley settlement during its meeting, possibly a prologue to the full annexation they’ll announce once Washington unveils Kushner Accords after Tuesday’s election.

In an effort to give his pal Bibi a pre-election boost, Donald Trump has been talking up the possibility of a US-Israel mutual defense pact, an idea that is popular among Israeli voters but has not been terribly popular among either US or Israeli policy-makers in the past. US officials have worried that a mutual defense pact would serve as a green light to Israel to attack its regional enemies so as to provoke a war in which the US would be obliged to get involved. So they’ve sought to specify the terms under which the US might intervene to defend Israel, which Israeli officials have considered illegitimate restrictions on their behavior. Israel is better off with an undefined relationship in which it’s just understood that the US will always come to its aid under any circumstance than it would be with a well-defined mutual defense treaty to which the US could refer to justify not coming to its aid. Of course, Trump won’t demand a well-defined treaty, so anything Netanyahu negotiates with him could be the best of both worlds from Israel’s perspective.


Egyptian officials say that Sinai militants attacked a checkpoint in the city of Arish on Saturday, killing at least three soldiers while losing at least three of their own fighters.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi says his military is not corrupt, though once you have to start denying that sort of thing there’s a pretty good chance it’s true. An Egyptian businessman named Mohammed Ali, who is now living in exile, has been posting videos online for several days now alleging that the military is appropriating treasury money allocated toward building projects including luxury hotels as well as opulent palaces for Sisi and a tomb for his deceased mother. Ali says the military stiffed him to the tune of some $13 million for work he’d done as a contractor, though he hasn’t offered any evidence to support his accusation and his own father claims that it’s Ali who owes the military money for some reason.


So those explosions that were just being reported as I was wrapping up Friday’s update turned out to be very serious business. There are a lot of accusations and conjectures flying around right now but the story as it was initially reported is that the Houthis conducted a drone strike on two oil-related facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia—an oil field at Khurais and an oil processing facility at Abqaiq. Of the two, the latter was the more critical target as it converts nearly seven million barrels of sour crude into sweet crude every day. The combined effect of the strikes has been to cut Saudi oil production by an estimated 5.7 million barrels per day—over half of the kingdom’s normal output and around five percent of the global oil supply. It could take weeks for the Saudis to restore full capacity, and oil prices are already soaring as a result. In the short term the Saudis and US may tap into their reserves to try to stabilize oil prices, and if prices rise high enough and stay there, some US fracking operations may come back on line, which would obviously increase supply though not enough to compensate for the Saudi decline.


The initial story about the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks quickly came under scrutiny after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took to Twitter to blame Iran and claim that there was “no evidence” that the attack had come from Yemen. Iranian officials have denied Pompeo’s accusation and say they’re ready for war if that’s where the US intends to take things. Apart from the Houthi claim and the fact that they’ve attacked targets inside Saudi Arabia repeatedly there doesn’t seem to be “hard” evidence that the attacks came from Yemen.

But is there any evidence they came from somewhere else? Any evidence at all to support Pompeo’s accusation? Well, yes, but not much. The US government released satellite imagery on Sunday that it says show that buildings at Abqaiq took heaviest damage on their northwestern and northern sides, arguing against a strike from the south and for a strike from somewhere to the north. And that’s about it for hard evidence. Some Iraqi media outlets have reported that the strikes originated within Iraq, a claim the Iraqi government denies. Kuwaiti officials say they’re investigating a possible drone or missile sighting that could be related to the attack, but that’s pretty thin. Even the satellite images aren’t conclusive—some buildings look like they were hit from the west, which is incongruous with an attack from either Iraq or Iran.

A related issue here is whether the strike involved drones or cruise missiles, or a mix of both. The initial reporting said drones, the Houthis claimed drones, even videos of the blasts suggested drones because you can hear people firing small arms at something in the air, which they probably wouldn’t be doing against missiles. But the damage is pretty heavy for drones and both the Saudis and the US are claiming they have evidence of missiles. If missiles were involved, then based on what is known of the Houthis’ cruise missile capabilities it would be more likely that the attack came from somewhere else, either Iraq or southwestern Iran. It’s unclear how somebody in Iraq or Iran could have launched cruise missiles at Saudi Arabia without the kingdom’s air defenses picking up on it, though to be fair at this point we have plenty of evidence that the Saudis aren’t very good at the whole “military” thing.

Anonymous US officials say they have hard evidence that Iran carried out the attack but so far they’re only talking in vague suppositions about how the “scope” and the “precision” of the attack means it could only have been Iran’s doing. That’s even thinner than the Kuwaiti story. They insist they plan on releasing evidence in the coming days, but a) so far they haven’t, and b) why would anybody believe them if they did? Some of the names at the top may have changed but this is the same country that brought you Saddam Hussein’s mobile biological weapons labs and his yellowcake uranium shopping spree. The US has no more credibility on issues like this, to the extent it ever had any. The upshot is that we don’t know who attacked these Saudi facilities. The other upshot is that, whether it was the Houthis, Iran, or a combination of the two, the lesson here is that whatever we’re doing in the Middle East isn’t working.

The attack and the accusations against Iran will probably quash any lingering chance for an encounter between Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at this month’s United Nations General Assembly, and it’s possible that was the point. If Pompeo’s accusation is a lie then it represents an effort by US anti-Iran hardliners to discourage Trump from meeting with Rouhani. If Iran or an Iranian-aligned militia in Iraq really did carry out the attack, then it likely represents an effort by Iranian anti-US hardliners to discourage Trump from meeting with Rouhani. These guys have a lot in common, really. Trump now says it’s “fake news” that he would be willing to meet Iranian leaders without preconditions:

This will come as a great shock to, uh, Donald Trump, who said just a few weeks ago that he would meet with Iranian leaders without preconditions. Maybe he doesn’t know what “preconditions” means.

The attack may prompt a US retaliation, because killing people is one thing but hurting The Oil is something else entirely, and while I would expect that retaliation to be calibrated in a way that US policymakers think won’t oblige Iran to respond, this is how wars start. The attack also makes it clear that, in addition to choking us and barbecuing our planet, humanity’s oil addiction is also making us all much less secure.



Afghan officials say their security forces, backed by US air support, conducted several successful attacks against Taliban targets over the weekend. In Paktika province on Saturday evening, a joint air and ground operation reportedly killed at least 85 Taliban fighters, while an airstrike killed the Taliban’s shadow governor in Samangan province and a ground operation killed a Taliban shadow district governor in Farah province. The Taliban has denied these claims, contending that it only lost seven fighters in Paktika province and that its Samangan governor is still alive.

The White House on Sunday confirmed that the US killed Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s son, during a counterterrorism operation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region several months ago. For several weeks US officials have been saying that they believed Hamza was dead but there had been no confirmation. Hamza bin Laden had either taken control of the remnants of central al-Qaeda or was serving as a sort of recruiting mascot for the group—either way his death will hurt a bit, but not that much.

At Jacobin, Pakistani academic Farooq Sulehria argues that, while Zalmay Khalilzad’s peace deal with the Taliban was probably a bad idea, a US withdrawal from Afghanistan is not:

Just ahead of Trump’s September 8 tweets, media were reporting a “deal” between Washington and the Taliban. Details of the “deal” were kept secret even from the Afghan government, which was in fact locked out of the negotiation process by the US representative Zalmay Khalilzad. If one goes by media leaks, the ill-fated deal would have had the United States pull out without the Taliban agreeing to a ceasefire. The Taliban, meantime, would not attack the departing troops. In simple words: the United States was abandoning Afghanistan to a bloody civil war.

If the reports were true, the “deal” hammered out by Khalilzad epitomized opportunism of the highest order. In media commentaries, a sigh of relief has been heaved on Trump’s tweets derailing the “deal.” After all, even an optimist could argue that a US withdrawal may perpetuate and aggravate the bloodshed in Afghanistan.

Yet an end to the US occupation of Afghanistan would be a welcome step. Arguably, it will create the necessary conditions for a return to peaceful times in the country. A balance sheet of US misadventure will provide the necessary context.


The Pakistani government is demanding answers after clashes on both its Afghan and Kashmiri borders over the weekend. Indian cross-border fire in Kashmir on Saturday reportedly killed at least one woman in the village of Balakot. Also on Saturday, four Pakistani soldiers were killed in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in two cross-border attacks from Afghanistan. Islamabad summoned diplomats from both India and Afghanistan to register complaints.


Protests in Hong Kong turned violent again Sunday evening, as protesters threw gasoline bombs at police and Chinese government offices in the city, and police used tear gas and water cannons on the protesters. Sunday’s protests began with a peaceful demonstration outside the UK consulate asking British officials to use whatever influence they have with Beijing to protect Hong Kong’s freedoms.


Kim Jong-un wrote a letter to Donald Trump last month inviting him to Pyongyang. I wholeheartedly encourage Trump to make the trip and, if he likes it there, feel free to just stay. I’m sure they’d love to have him.

Trump has already walked into North Korea, so all he has to do next time is just keep walking (Wikimedia Commons)



The Australian government has apparently determined that China was responsible for a cyber-attack against networks belonging to its parliament and three largest political parties prior to May’s election. It’s not commenting publicly, mostly out of fear of alienating Australia’s largest trading partner, and the Chinese government is denying the charge. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the hacks affected the election.



Tunisian voters turned out for the first round of that country’s presidential election on Sunday, and while the vote count hasn’t been completed it looks like two outsider candidates are heading for the runoff, probably on October 13. The polling firm Sigma Conseil puts law professor Kaïs Saïed in first place with 19.5 percent of the vote and media mogul Nabil Karoui in second place with 15.5 percent. Karoui remains in custody over corruption charges but has been allowed to run nevertheless. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, considered one of the frontrunners, is believed to have come in fifth. Saïed and Karoui have taken different tacks to appeal to frustrated voters—Saïed has positioned himself as the anti-corruption candidate, while Karoui has adopted a more populist tone with promises of increased aid to the poor.


Interim Algerian President Abdelkader Bensalah announced on Sunday that he’s scheduled the country’s presidential election for December 12. Bensalah is caving to pressure from Algerian army boss Ahmed Gaid Salah, who has called for an election by the end of the year, while ignoring pressure from the tens of thousands of Algerians who keep protesting every Friday to insist that the country’s ruling elite must all resign before an election. His decision is likely to reenergize the protest movement and we may see some very large demonstrations in Algeria in the coming days.


Leaders from the members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) gathered in Ouagadougou on Saturday and pledged a combined $1 billion toward the fight against Islamist groups in the region. It’s unclear whether that money would go to the underfunded G5 Sahel force that’s supposed to be combating al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates in West Africa. Much of the region problem is centered in Mali, where the northern and central parts of the country are dominated in several places by the al-Qaeda aligned Jamaʿat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin. The ECOWAS leaders also asked the United Nations to bolster its Malian peacekeeping operation to help combat the problem.


The New York Times reports that Nigeria’s war against Boko Haram, Islamic State-West Africa, and their various splinter groups still isn’t going well:

Nigeria’s war against the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram was supposed to be over by now. President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, was re-elected earlier this year after boasting about his progress battling Boko Harm. He has repeatedly declared that the group has been “technically defeated.” On Tuesday, the president conceded that “its members are still a nuisance.”

A full decade into the war, however, Boko Haram militants are still roaming the countryside with impunity. Their fighters now have more sophisticated drones than the military and are well-armed after successful raids on military brigades, according to local politicians and security analysts.

Unsurprisingly, the Nigerian military’s decision to cede control of the Borno state countryside to the insurgents and bottle its forces up inside fortified camps has done nothing but made the insurgency more dangerous. With almost complete control of the countryside, ISWA especially has been able to mass its forces and attack several of those camps, dealing heavy casualties and materiel losses to the Nigerians.


Egyptian, Sudanese, and Ethiopian officials have reportedly restarted their negotiations over sharing water in the Nile River basin to manage the impact of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on water flow. The GERD sits on the Blue Nile, which along with the White Nile feeds the Nile River, and Cairo fears that the process of filling the dam will lead to devastating water shortages downstream. Ideally the three countries would be able to come to an agreement governing the filling and operation of the dam, though talks toward that end have never gone very far in the past.


Officials in the breakaway region of Somaliland say that the UAE is no longer planning to operate a military air base in the city of Berbera and that the facility the Emiratis have been building will instead be converted to a civilian airport. UAE officials haven’t commented, but they have been tamping down their plans for grand regional expansion in recent weeks (see, for example, their drawdown in Yemen).


At least 23 people were killed in recent days in a battle between two CAR militant groups, the Popular Front for the Renaissance of the Central African Republic and the Movement of Central African Freedom Fighters for Justice, near the Sudanese border. Both groups were among several that signed a peace deal with the government in February, so for obvious reasons the fighting has raised some concerns about the stability of that accord.



European governments, including Belgium’s, are resisting the repatriation of citizens who went to Syria to fight for ISIS largely because of the potential political risks of bringing them home:

It’s a political matter more than anything; lawmakers won’t dare to defy public opinion. In France, 89 percent of respondents are against the return of adult jihadis and 67 percent oppose the repatriation of children, according to a survey by Odoxa.

The issue of repatriation would also require consensus across the European Union from a security perspective. If a returnee enters the Schengen Area, all of that territory would be at risk because of free movement. A returned Belgian could strike in Spain.

Bringing Islamic State members back also exposes a judicial weakness; a lack of evidence could lead to short prison sentences, and jihadis might only serve three- to five-year jail terms before they are back on the streets. If a terrorist attack were perpetrated by a repatriated fighter in coming years, the political party that approved their return would face devastating consequences.


Boris Johnson told British media on Sunday that he’s making “huge progress” in his negotiations with European Union officials on a new Brexit agreement. This came as a great surprise to the European Union officials with whom he’s been negotiating, who actually say they’re in “dismay” over how badly things are going. Johnson is also comparing the UK to the Incredible Hulk, and no it’s not because they’re both really dumb and pointlessly destructive. No, he’s talking about breaking free of the EU’s “shackles,” which I guess is a Hulk thing (?), on October 31 (this seems like he’s talking about a no-deal Brexit), and also something about getting madder and stronger though I have to admit I’m not following this analogy very well. For one thing, the Hulk is frequently the good guy in his comics, so right there the comparison starts to go off the rails.



The Venezuelan opposition says its Norway-backed talks with Nicolás Maduro’s government are over, declaring via Twitter that Maduro “abandoned the negotiation process with false excuses.” Maduro had suspended his government’s participation in the talks over remarks made some time back by opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s representative in the UK to the effect that Guaidó should abandon Venezuela’s territorial claims in neighboring Guyana in order to bolster his international support.


Concerns are growing about the possibility of a military confrontation between Venezuela and Colombia. The revival of armed insurrection by the Colombian rebel group FARC—whose leaders may be operating in western Venezuela—has added to an already tense mix. The Venezuelan military has been holding provocative military exercises near the border. Regional leaders are activating the 1947 Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, which obliges them to take steps to protect Colombia, and while that treaty doesn’t require military action it could put everybody on a slippery slope leading to military action.


The Nicaraguan government has denied permission for an Organization of American States peace mission to enter the country. The OAS delegation was supposed to help negotiate a settlement between Daniel Ortega’s government and its opposition, which has been in outright revolt for over a year after Ortega’s security forces violently suppressed protests over plans to cut pension programs. It’s unclear why the Nicaraguans have turned the OAS team aside.


Finally, Stephen Wertheim argues that if US leaders want to make peace, they have to give up the dream of a world kept in check purely through the overwhelming might of the US military:

In theory, armed supremacy could foster peace. Facing overwhelming force, who would dare to defy American wishes? That was the hope of Pentagon planners in 1992; they reacted to the collapse of America’s Cold War adversary not by pulling back but by pursuing even greater military pre-eminence. But the quarter-century that followed showed the opposite to prevail in practice. Freed from one big enemy, the United States found many smaller enemies: It has launched far more military interventions since the Cold War than during the “twilight struggle” itself. Of all its interventions since 1946, roughly 80 percent have taken place after 1991.

Why have interventions proliferated as challengers have shrunk? The basic cause is America’s infatuation with military force. Its political class imagines that force will advance any aim, limiting debate to what that aim should be. Continued gains by the Taliban, 18 years after the United States initially toppled it, suggest a different principle: The profligate deployment of force creates new and unnecessary objectives more than it realizes existing and worthy ones.

World update: September 12 2019

Stories from Iraq, Pakistan, Hungary, and more


September 11, 1565: The Great Siege of Malta ends

September 11, 1697: A Habsburg army decisively defeats the Ottomans at the Battle of Zenta, in modern Serbia. The Ottomans lost thousands of soldiers in one of the most lopsided defeats in their history. The result left the Habsburgs in control of a substantial portion of the Balkans and contributed to the overall Habsburg victory in the 1683-1699 “Great Turkish War.”

September 11, 2001: Al-Qaeda operatives kill nearly 3000 people by flying airliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon. A fourth plane, probably intended for the US Capitol, was brought down over Pennsylvania.

September 12, 1309: Castilian King Ferdinand IV captures Gibraltar from the Emirate of Granada. The victory was maybe the sole bright spot in a campaign that saw Ferdinand overextend himself by unsuccessfully besieging Algeciras, and it was reversed when the Granadans retook Gibraltar in 1333.

September 12, 1683: The Battle of Vienna

September 12, 1974: A committee of Ethiopian military officers, called the “Derg,” overthrows Emperor Haile Selassie in a coup amid mass unrest caused in part by a serious famine. The Derg, which refashioned itself as the “Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia,” ruled the country until 1987 when it further transformed itself into the People's Democratic Republic of Ethiopia.



Airstrikes hit southern Idlib province on Thursday for the first time since a Russian-Syrian ceasefire in the province went into effect on August 31. They followed a couple of isolated airstrikes on the western Idlib/eastern Latakia provincial border over the past couple of days. There’s really no question at this point that these have been Russian and Syrian government operations, though they’re not acknowledging the strikes, probably because they’re violating their own ceasefire. Artillery fire has been relatively frequent in southern Idlib since the ceasefire, but the region had seen a pause in airstrikes. On Wednesday, rebels in the region claimed that pro-government ground forces are “massing” in the southern Idlib area, presumably with the intent of restarting their offensive soon.


At least four people were killed and 13 wounded on Thursday when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb in Diyarbakır province. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party is believed to have been responsible though no group has claimed the bombing.

The US is preparing to deploy 150 soldiers to northeastern Syria to participate in joint patrols along the Syria-Turkey border with the Turkish military. This is another step toward implementing the “safe zone” that the two countries have agreed to set up, though they have yet to agree on its particulars. There’s been an ongoing disagreement as to how wide the safe zone should be, and now it seems the US is balking at Turkey’s plan to relocate upwards of one million Syrian refugees into the zone. On top of the ugliness of a forced relocation and what that means for the refugees, a step like that will likely displace the predominantly Kurdish residents of the region and cause a shift, maybe permanent, in its demographics. For Turkey that’s the point, but the US views this plan as a shift from the safe zone’s original purpose, which was to give Ankara assurances about the security of its border by moving Kurdish fighters further south.

The Turkish government has threatened to release potentially hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees into Europe unless it gets both the safe zone it wants and increased European aid. That this is even considered a threat is appalling, but European xenophobia being what it is, the sudden influx of that many Syrian refugees would undoubtedly be destabilizing.


Iraqi cleric and power broker Muqtada al-Sadr is on a rare visit to Iran, which we know because he was observed on video earlier this week at an event sitting between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani. Sadr has increasingly portrayed himself as a nationalist and has criticized Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, so the video naturally raised some eyebrows. Al-Monitor is reporting that he’s in Iran to convince the Iranians to drop their support for the Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, whose government has largely failed to get off the ground (he still doesn’t have a defense minister or an interior minister) and may be losing support, and allow the appointment of someone stronger (i.e., less dependent on Iran) as PM.

As the leader of the largest party in Iraq’s ruling coalition, Sadr has lost the outsider critic status that made him so popular, so he may be trying to regain that popularity by portraying himself as the guy on the inside fighting for the Iraqi people. He may also be positioning himself as the heir to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani as the Iraqi religious figure who can guide Iraq through political upheaval and stand up to Iranian leaders to protect Iraqi interests.


According to POLITICO, senior officials in the US government believe that Israel is responsible for placing several “cellphone surveillance devices” around Washington DC, including near the White House. When it was informed of this situation, the Trump administration naturally did nothing about it. Israel is our friend, don’t you know. Trump doesn’t believe they’re doing it, so I guess that’s that.

Buddies don’t spy on buddies, OK? They just don’t.

The Israeli government is denying the charge with Benjamin Netanyahu calling it a “complete fabrication” and insisting that Israel doesn’t spy on the United States (…anymore, presumably). The richest targets of espionage in this administration are probably people who know the people who are in frequent contact with Trump personally. So if you know Sean Hannity and you keep seeing the same car in your rearview mirror or hearing strange clicking sounds on the telephone, that’s probably not a coincidence.

Some Israeli officials apparently believe that the most recent incidents of rocket fire out of Gaza indicate that Hamas’s political leadership is no longer controlling the rockets and that its military wing, along with Palestinian Islamic Jihad, is calling the (literal) shots. More radical Islamist elements seem to be gaining strength in Gaza since Hamas’s decision to pursue negotiations with the Israeli government, but only Hamas and PIJ have long-range rockets and PIJ probably can’t fire its weapon without somebody in Hamas at least knowing about it. Whether this is an honest assessment or laying the groundwork for another Gaza war remains to be seen.


Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah has reportedly checked out of George Washington Medical Center in Washington, DC. The 90 year old Sabah was supposed to meet with Donald Trump this week but had to be admitted to the hospital for tests (the Kuwaitis have unsurprisingly been stingy with details) and thus had to postpone that meeting. It’s not clear whether he’s sticking around to reschedule or heading back to Kuwait.


The Daily Beast reports that Trump is “toying with” the idea of allowing France and other European countries to go ahead with a plan to extend Iran a $15 billion line of credit, secured by Iranian oil, to help temper the damage US sanctions have done to the Iranian economy. The plan would require Iran to return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, the one Trump tore apart last year, to access the funds. Basically Trump, who was highly critical of the original deal because he claimed it gave money to Iran (in reality it returned Iranian money that was frozen in the US), may green light a plan to pay Iran to return to that same deal. He’s previously expressed an openness to the idea so this isn’t exactly breaking news, and he still seems keen to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly this month, which this could help facilitate. Trump wouldn’t really have to do much here other than allowing the Europeans to float the credit line without sanctioning any of the parties involved.

Despite his apparent willingness to ease up on Tehran if it gets him a splashy photo op with Rouhani, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin insists that Trump is still committed to his “maximum pressure” program. Sure, why not.



The Uzbek and Kyrgyz governments are finalizing a land swap in an effort to tamp down on periodic clashes between their citizens and border guards. Earlier this week a group of Kyrgyz civilians clashed with Uzbek border guards near the Kyrgyz village of Kerkidan over a border demarcation issue. That area will go over to Kyrgyzstan in return for another small area at another part of the border going to Uzbekistan. The issue of weak/undefined Soviet-era borders is one that the Central Asian states (particularly Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) continue to face, and more swaps like this may be necessary down the road.


A Taliban car bomb targeting a military base in Kabul on Thursday killed at least four Afghan special forces soldiers.

While most of the blame for the botched Camp David peace conference over the weekend lies with Donald Trump and his administration, the AP is reporting that internal Taliban disagreements played a role as well. The Taliban’s negotiating team in Doha apparently accepted the US invitation to Camp David, but balked when the group’s ruling council objected. They came back with a demand that a signing ceremony be held in Doha before the Camp David meeting, which would have undermined Trump’s intention to portray himself as a great peacemaker.


At LobeLog, South Asia analyst Fatemeh Aman argues that the Camp David fiasco revealed something about the relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan:

Among all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, Pakistan was the most active and supportive of the peace talks. Pakistan saw them as an opportunity to prove that it wants stability for Afghanistan, though Pakistani involvement also made Afghans more suspicious of the entire process. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan put his credibility on the line and apparently was personally involved.

If there is a lesson from all this, it is that, contrary to common belief, the Taliban is not entirely Pakistan’s puppet. The assumption that, if Pakistan pressures the Taliban to make peace, it will happen overnight, is based on the theory that the Taliban is a homogeneous and a well-organized group. In fact, based on the recent regroupings and changes in the Taliban’s leadership, there are major differences within the group. This means that these peace talks, initiated by the United States, even if successful, may not have translated into peace and an end of violence.


Jacobin has published a first-hand account of life in Kashmir in the early days of the Indian government’s crackdown last month:

I arrived in Kashmir on Thursday, August 1, delighted to be home after eleven months away. I planned on celebrating Eid with family and friends, and going hiking, fishing, and boating. Most of all, I wanted to spend time by the Dal Lake. The scorching heat of Delhi had zapped my energy. Only the wondrous climate, mountains, and lakes of Kashmir could restore me.

But after just two days, everything changed. Kashmir turned into an open-air prison, and its inhabitants became inmates.


According to Al Jazeera, the Myanmar government has been widening an unpaved road through Karen (or Kayin) state for military uses, which is a violation of the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement that it signed with multiple rebel groups—including, as it happens, the Karen National Union. Not only has the military used the road to move assets into the province without the KNU’s permission (as the NCA requires), it’s also likely that the budget for the road project came out of the government’s rural development budget, which is supposed to go to projects that improve living conditions in places like Karen state.


Donald Trump has decided to postpone by at least two weeks a plan to increase tariffs on Chinese imports that was scheduled to go into effect on October 1. Trump says that Beijing requested the delay so that the tariffs wouldn’t kick in on China’s National Day, but with US-China talks also scheduled to resume early next month the delay raises the possibility that they could be postponed again if those talks make progress.



Thousands of people protested in Khartoum on Thursday seeking justice for the over 100 people killed in June when Sudan’s then-military government (allegedly) ordered security forces to attack demonstrators. The lingering feelings about June’s massacre could be one of the biggest stumbling blocks that Sudan’s new interim government faces. Public sentiment is clearly in favor of an investigation and prosecutions of those responsible, but it can probably be assumed that the leading members of the junta negotiated some assurances that they wouldn’t face legal jeopardy as part of the process of forming the transitional government.


The New Arab, which can be hit or miss so take that into account, is reporting that the Libyan Government of National Accord is driving Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” away from Tripoli. According to its sources, pro-GNA armed forces are advancing on the town of Tarhuna, which is located southeast of Tripoli and has been one of the LNA’s command centers for its ongoing Tripoli offensive.


Jailed Tunisian presidential candidate and media big shot Nabil Karoui is reportedly on a hunger strike. Karoui, one of the leaders in early polling, was arrested on corruption allegations three weeks ago in what looks like—even if it’s completely legitimate—a politically motivated move to undermine his campaign, though he does remain on the ballot. He began the hunger strike on Wednesday to demand that he be allowed to vote in Sunday’s election.


Militants attacked a Nigerian military base near the northeastern town of Gudumbali on Tuesday, killing at least nine soldiers and leaving another 27 missing according to sources who spoke with Reuters. The Nigerian military is denying the report. It’s unclear whether Islamic State-West Africa or Boko Haram was responsible, but Gudumbali is fairly close to the Lake Chad region that is ISWA’s base of operations so chances are it was them.


The UN Security Council voted unanimously on Thursday to relax the international arms embargo on the CAR. The council is apparently satisfied with the implementation of the peace deal that the CAR government signed with some 14 insurgent groups back in February, because a month before that it voted to extend the embargo for another year under a promise to revisit the issue in September. The relaxation allows the CAR to purchase weapons and ammunition whose caliber is 14.5 mm or lower and will in theory help it arm its police and military forces to deal with threats both from insurgents who didn’t sign the February agreement and from transnational arms traffickers and other smugglers that have exploited the country’s civil war and the chaos it has created.



The U.S. Agency for International Development has unveiled a new program, called Countering Malign Kremlin Influence, that are deemed to be under pressure from Russian “soft power aggression.” This would include countries like Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and some Balkan states, and would, according to the AP, support “independent journalism and fact-checking in Moldova and the Balkans, as well as helping countries diversify their energy supplies so that Russian energy doesn’t remain a tool of political control.”


The Trump administration on Thursday released $250 million in hitherto frozen military aid to Ukraine. It has not said why the aid was held up in the first place, but Democrats in Congress have suggested that Trump might have been leaning on Kyiv to assist an investigation into potential 2020 election opponent Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and his business dealings there.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, meanwhile, says his government is developing a “roadmap” for negotiating a peace deal with rebels in eastern Ukraine. He’s hoping to discuss the framework at a meeting later this month of the “Normandy” negotiating group (France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine).


Czech President Miloš Zeman visited Serbia on Wednesday and told his hosts that he wants the Czech government to withdraw diplomatic recognition of Kosovo. Zeman suggested that the war crimes charges that a Kosovo war crimes tribunal at The Hague have leveled at Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj have tainted the whole country to the point where it should no longer exist. Which seems a little extreme, but what do I know? Zeman has no authority to change Czech foreign policy. He can try to influence Czech PM Andrej Babiš to change the policy, but he and Babiš aren’t always on the same page these days and it’s unlikely that Babiš would take this step and risk his relationship with the European Union. In response to Zeman’s comments, Haradinaj withdrew from a Visegrád Group summit in Prague on Thursday that was supposed to give Balkan leaders and V4 leaders a chance to interact with one another.


During that Visegrád Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán is hoping to start fresh with the new European Commission, after his xenophobia and budding authoritarianism spoiled his relationship with the previous EC under Jean-Claude Juncker. Lucky for him, he and incoming EC President Ursula von der Leyen appear to have a lot in common:

When Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming chief of the European Union’s powerful administrative branch, unveiled her top team at a news conference on Tuesday, one new job title provoked a sea of puzzled faces: “vice president for protecting our European way of life.”

But when she then tried to explain what the role would involve — responsibility for migration policy, among other things — the puzzlement turned to outrage. Critics denounced the phrasing as an echo of far-right rhetoric that identifies Europe as white and Christian, and migration from the Middle East and Africa as a threat to that identity.

“Vice President for Protecting Our European Way of Life” sure sounds bad. So bad, in fact, that the guy von der Leyen appointed to that job, Greek politician Margaritis Schinas, isn’t using it as his job title. Von derk Leyen says that the “European way of life” is “holding up our values and the beauty and the dignity of every single human being … The rule of law — in other words, everybody has the same rights — is one of our founding principles.” One assumes she could have found a different way of expressing that, especially since those things do, you know, exist in other places besides Europe. The European Parliament may force her to change the name of the office, assuming she doesn’t do it herself.


Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has rejected the leftist Podemos Party’s latest coalition offer. Which is the same coalition offer he made to Podemos back in July. Podemos Party boss Pablo Iglesias even offered to establish the coalition on a trial basis—if Sánchez was dissatisfied with the arrangement in a year, Iglesias said that the party would withdraw from the coalition and support a Socialist-only government. Sánchez contends that he doesn’t trust Podemos enough to enter into a coalition arrangement with the party. He says he still wants to negotiate to find a way to avoid a new election, but there are only ten days left before a September 23 deadline to form a government and at this point it seems like Sánchez may want to negotiate but isn’t terribly interested in making a deal.



Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benítez announced on Thursday that he’s going to try to amend Paraguay’s constitution to allow the military to assume responsibilities in the country’s war against drug gangs. This came a day after a group of Red Command cartel members broke their (alleged) leader out of government custody, killing at least one person in the process. Paraguay spent the period from 1954 until 1989 under a military dictatorship, so proposals like this can be controversial.


On his Instagram on Wednesday, Brazilian Senator Flavio Bolsonaro, son of President Jair Bolsonaro, compared his father’s stabbing at a campaign event last September to 9/11. Sure, that seems very normal. Meanwhile, Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo was at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on Wednesday and thrilled the crowd by denying climate change. Which, if anything, is even wackier than comparing the Bolsonaro stabbing to 9/11.


Nicolás Maduro says he’s not going to attend the UN General Assembly in New York, but he will send his vice president and foreign minister along with a petition signed by 12 million people denouncing US sanctions. At the same time, according to Reuters Maduro’s government is still engaging in relatively frequent informal talks with the Venezuelan opposition even though Maduro withdrew from formal Norway-brokered talks last month. These don’t seem to be heavily substantive discussions but more of a way to keep lines of dialogue open.


Two bombings damaged Colombias Cano Limon oil pipeline in Norte de Santander province overnight, one of them causing an oil spill in the Cubugon River. ELN rebels were probably responsible.

Meanwhile, the Colombian military says it’s “on a special alert” because the Venezuelan military has been conducting drills on its side of their shared border. The Venezuelan government says it’s drilling in preparation for an invasion from Colombia, though there doesn’t seem to be any indication that Colombia is preparing anything like that.


Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele says he will deploy 800 additional police officers to his country’s borders with Guatemala and Honduras in an effort to prevent migrants from leaving to head north toward the US-Mexico border. Elsewhere, the United Nations agreed on Thursday to support Bukele’s new anti-corruption commission, the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador.


The Honduran government is being pressured by the Trump administration to sign a “safe third country” agreement that would let the US send asylum seekers there to await the results of their legal processing. Between gang violence, ordinary crime, and frequent political protests, there is no definition of “safe” that could possibly include Honduras—that’s why so many Hondurans keep trying to claim asylum in the US. The Honduran murder rate, for example, is eight times what it is in the US, and two-thirds of the population lives in poverty. The Trump administration doesn’t care about any of this stuff, of course, it just wants to dump asylum seekers in a proverbial hole somewhere and then forget about them.


US pressure has also fundamentally changed Mexico’s approach to immigration. When President Andrés Manuel López Obrador came into office last year it was with big plans to treat Central American migrants with respect and dignity, and to combat migration by offering aid to the region and jobs for those who did cross the border into Mexico. Now his migration policy consists of putting thousands of soldiers on Mexico’s southern border to keep migrants from entering and making it as difficult as possible for those who do enter to make their way north to the border.


The Trump administration has begun enforcing new rules about asylum seeking that will basically disqualify anybody at the southern border from seeking asylum in the US. The policy bars anybody who has passed through another country along the way from applying for asylum in the US, so unless they’re from Mexico and came directly to the border none of those migrants will meet that requirement. The policy has been challenged in court but the Supreme Court ruled earlier in the week that the administration can go ahead with implementation while it’s working through the legal system.

A new name has apparently been added to the list of potential John Bolton replacements: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Not that Pompeo would change jobs, mind you, he would just do both. Or, to be more accurate, he would just continue to do what he does now, being a sycophant, and not really do either job. Trump’s chief hostage negotiator, Robert O’Brien, is also being considered.

Bolton’s acting replacement, Charles Kupperman, who is also under consideration for the permanent gig, turns out to be a really nice guy:

Kupperman served on the board of directors for the Center for Security Policy from 2001 through 2010, according to the group’s tax records obtained by ProPublicaFrank Gaffney Jr., an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist, founded the center in 1988 and serves as its executive chairman.

The Southern Poverty Law Center first designated the center a hate group in 2015, five years after Kupperman left the board. But while Kupperman was on the board, Gaffney and the center trafficked in anti-Muslim conspiracy theories and rhetoric, including questioning whether President Barack Obama was a Muslim.

He and Trump should have a lot in common, at least.

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