World update: April 13-14 2019

Stories from Yemen, Sudan, Libya, Finland, Venezuela, and more

(I know we’re a little earlier than usual this evening but the forecast calls for thunderstorms and we don’t exactly have the most reliable electricity here at Foreign Exchanges HQ, so I’m posting now in case I can’t later.)

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MIDDLE EAST

YEMEN

While the Houthis and the Yemeni government continue to do a “will they, won’t they” dance with respect to implementing their ceasefire in Hudaydah, ISIS and al-Qaeda are reportedly engaged in a little conflict of their own in central Yemen:

Clashes are occurring regularly in central Al Bayda Province between Yemeni tribal forces aligned with the two extremist groups. Meanwhile, an online propaganda war of videos, images and even poems is taking place in social media forums and Internet chat rooms as both sides seek to gain more followers and sympathizers.

In recent weeks, the fighting has escalated. The Islamic State deployed suicide bombers, including a Somali national, against al-Qaeda positions, killing and injuring more than 10 fighters, including commanders. Al-Qaeda, in retaliation, attacked Islamic State bases, claiming to wrest six of them away.

Then, a tribal group affiliated with al-Qaeda did something unprecedented: It offered a $20,000 reward for the apprehension or death of the local Islamic State leader.

For the most part this fight involves local factions aligned with either group working out their own grievances with one another under the imprimatur of international jihadism. But with ISIS looking for a new home, that could change, and even if it doesn’t this is still one of several local or regional conflicts that will make it difficult to glue Yemen together if and when the main war finally ends.

IRAQ

The Iraqi military says its forces killed five ISIS fighters in Diyala province on Sunday, including the group’s local commander for the Hamrin region. US and Iraqi aircraft have reportedly been striking ISIS targets in the northern part of the province for the past three days. ISIS has been using the rugged terrain of the Hamrin Mountains to shelter as it rebuilds and conducts small-scale, hit-and-run attacks against the Iraqis.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas swore in his new cabinet under new Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh on Saturday. Abbas canned his old “unity” cabinet last month in a sign that efforts to reconcile Hamas and the PLO have pretty much come to naught. This cabinet is primarily made up of Fatah Party members, and it’s already been denounced by Hamas as illegitimate.

IRAN

The Iranian government has summoned the French ambassador to Tehran, after the French ambassador to the US, Gérard Araud, suggested on Twitter on Saturday that the international community may reimpose sanctions on Iran when the nuclear deal’s restrictions on its uranium enrichment program sunset in 2025. That would be pretty much a complete violation of the nuclear accord, under which Iran accepted the 10 year restrictions with the understanding that sanctions would be lifted for good unless Iran did something to violate the terms of the agreement. Araud deleted the tweet, but needless to say this isn’t going to help the Europeans convince Iran to continue sticking to the deal.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban marked the start of its “spring offensive” over the weekend with a major assault on the northern city of Kunduz that began early Saturday morning. At least 70 people were killed and wounded in the offensive, according to local officials. The Taliban captured Kunduz back in 2015, and while they lost it shortly after it’s been a long-standing target for them. The group also launched several other attacks around Afghanistan, but none were nearly as intense as the fighting in Kunduz.

PAKISTAN

Hazara in Quetta have been protesting for three days now, since a suicide bombing on Friday that targeted the predominantly Shiʿa minority group. ISIS claimed responsibility for the bombing, which hit a market in a Hazara neighborhood of the city and killed at least 19 people. The protesters are demanding protection from the Pakistani government and an end to extremist attacks against their community.

PHILIPPINES

Philippine officials say they’ve confirmed the death of regional ISIS leader Abu Dar in a clash with Philippine security forces last month in Lanao del Sur province. Abu Dar became the leader of a network of ISIS-aligned groups in the Philippines, including Abu Sayyaf and the Maute Group, when ISIS’s former “emir” in the region, Isnilon Hapilon, was killed during the battle of Marawi in 2017.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Sudan’s governing military council announced on Sunday that it’s sacked former junta leader Awad ibn Auf from his gig as defense minister as well as Salah Abdallah Mohamed Saleh (AKA Salih Ghosh) from his gig as the director of Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service. New junta boss Abdel Fattah al-Burhan pledged a transition to “a complete civilian government,” and on Saturday he put an end to the curfew that the junta had put in place after ousting ex-President Omar al-Bashir on Thursday.

Thankfully, the Saudis on Saturday expressed their support for the junta and said they’re preparing an aid package for Sudan. Bashir wasn’t exactly anti-Saudi, but he was always friendly with Islamists (the Muslim Brotherhood, for example), and nowadays that means he was too close to Qatar and Turkey for Riyadh’s comfort. So it’s not terribly surprising that the Saudis are on board with the new regime. Whether they’ll still be on board if and when a civilian government takes over very much remains to be seen.

The protesters who prompted Bashir’s ouster say they plan on continuing their sit-in outside the defense ministry and army headquarters in Khartoum until the junta transitions to civilian rule. The military council has talked about a transition that could take up to two years, but the protesters are clearly not interested in waiting that long. Protest leaders are asking as a first step for civilians to be added to the council and for a civilian government to be established ASAP to run the country day-to-day. They’re also demanding major reforms to the mostly loathed NISS, and Salih Ghosh’s removal is a start in that regard. The military council claims to be meeting with protest leaders, but most of the main groups behind the protest deny having contact with the junta and it would appear the council is actually meeting with politicians from Bashir’s National Congress Party.

LIBYA

According to the World Health Organization, 121 people (both combatants and civilians) have been killed since Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” began its assault on Tripoli nearly 10 days ago, and around 13,500 people have been displaced. On Sunday, Libya’s internationally recognized government said that its forces shot down an LNA aircraft south of Tripoli, though the LNA says the plane crashed because of a technical failure. Haftar spent his Sunday in Cairo meeting with his role model and chief foreign backer, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Egypt, along with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, has been supporting Haftar’s move on the Libyan capital.

Although its offensive has stalled, don’t expect the LNA to give up. Aguila Saleh Issa, the president of the rival Libyan legislature in Tobruk, told his fellow legislators on Saturday that the LNA will continue its attack “to get rid of militias and terrorist groups,” by which he means militias aligned with the Tripoli government. The Tripoli government naturally denies any ties to extremists, though this is not a cut and dried thing and Tripoli’s big consideration here is to avoid alienating Western governments. There are unquestionably Islamist groups, some of them under United Nations sanctions, that are aligned with Tripoli, but is that because Tripoli appeals to them or because they independently oppose Haftar? Probably more the latter, but ultimately it’s difficult to parse exactly what’s motivating all of these militias.

TUNISIA

Tunisia’s ruling Nidaa Tounes already suffered one schism this year when Prime Minister Youssef Chahed split to form the rival Tahya Tounes back in January, and it may be going through another one now. Dueling party congresses on Saturday elected two different leaders to run its central committee: politician Sofien Toubel and Hafedh Caid Essebsi. The latter is the son of President Beji Caid Essebsi, and he probably bears most of the responsibility for splintering the party as he’s used his father’s authority to expand his power over the past couple of years. The new schism doesn’t bode well for the party’s chances in Tunisia’s general election later this year, especially if the elder Essebsi decides, as he’s suggested he will, not to run for another presidential term.

ALGERIA

Friday’s protest in Algiers turned alarmingly violent when riot police used tear gas and water cannons (and possibly rubber bullets) on demonstrators who returned fire with rocks and set a police car on fire. Protesters have continued demonstrating even after ex-President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s resignation, demanding fundamental change to Algeria’s restrictive, closed political system. Protest leaders reiterated their commitment to peaceful demonstrations and called on authorities to ease up on the increasingly harsh police response.

Algerian judges are now threatening not to oversee the country’s scheduled July 4 presidential election unless serious political reforms are in place by then. They want assurances that this vote will not be conducted under the same electoral framework as past elections under Algeria’s ruling clique. Judges are responsible for organizing voter rolls and managing the electoral process, so this is potentially a serious threat.

NIGERIA

Nigeria appears to be suffering from its own outbreak of Hashtag Fake News, which is exacerbating tensions between herders (mostly Muslim) and farmers (mostly Christian) across the country’s central belt:

Simon Kolawole, a former editor with Nigeria’s ThisDay newspaper and founder of The Cable online news site, said manufactured lies in the guise of news was “further endangering the delicate ethno-religious fabric of Nigeria”.

It was also “hampering the credibility of news outlets in the country”, he told AFP.

Information minister Lai Mohammed said misinformation and hate speech “threatens the peace, unity, security and corporate existence of Nigerians”.

Of particular concern was the fabrication of stories pitting the country’s mainly Muslim north against the predominantly Christian south a traditional fault line often used by proponents of restructuring the current federal system and even breaking it up.

“When you go by social media, the impression you get is as if Nigeria is at war and as if Muslims are killing Christians,” said Mohammed.

SOMALIA

Officials in the autonomous Somali region of Puntland say that the deputy leader of the local branch of ISIS, Abdihakim Dhuqub, was killed in an airstrike on Sunday. ISIS is only believed to have maybe 200 people in all of Somalia, so this isn’t exactly a monumental event.

EUROPE

UKRAINE

Ukrainian presidential contenders, incumbent Petro Poroshenko and TV comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy, have discussed holding a televised debate before next weekend’s runoff election, but apparently haven’t agreed on when it should happen. Poroshenko wanted it to happen this weekend, while Zelenskiy preferred to wait until Friday, two days before the vote. So Poroshenko on Sunday went ahead with his own “debate,” complete with an empty podium for his opponent, hoping that voters will penalize Zelenskiy for no-showing a debate to which he’d never agreed in the first place. Yes, I know that doesn’t really make any sense, but when you’re an unpopular incumbent who couldn’t crack 16 percent of the vote in the first round and polling shows you’re about to get creamed in the runoff, I suppose you try to make up ground however you can.

SERBIA

Thousands of Serbian protesters demonstrated in Belgrade again on Saturday against President Aleksandar Vučić. Opposition leaders have been organizing protests against Vučić going back to November, claiming that his government is authoritarian and demanding fair elections, protection of press freedoms, and other reforms.

FINLAND

Finland’s election on Sunday appears to be heading toward an inconclusive finish. The center-left Social Democratic Party of Finland and the far-right Finns Party were virtually tied at last count—the Social Democrats at 17.7 percent and Finns at 17.5 percent—with 99.5 percent of the vote counted. The center-right National Coalition is at 17 percent and the current ruling Centre Party is at 13.8 percent.

The Social Democrats have declared “victory,” but that may be a stretch. Finns is so right-wing that most of the country’s other parties have ruled out working with it, so the outcome points to the Social Democrats leading a new coalition. But that coalition will have to be ideologically broad and therefore likely unwieldy, and forming it will probably require an extended and perilous negotiating process.

GERMANY

Around 600 people had to be evacuated from their homes in Frankfurt on Sunday so that police could safely detonate an unexploded World War II shell discovered in the Main River last Tuesday. I know this isn’t really major news but, if you’re new around here, tracking stories of unexploded WWII bombs is just something I do for some reason.

FRANCE

Emmanuel Macron will deliver a prime time speech on French TV on Monday evening to lay out some new policy ideas meant to appease the “Yellow Vest” protesters. The policies will be the first product of the “Grand National Debate” Macron launched in January in response to the protests. It’s not clear what he plans to offer but I wouldn’t expect any of it to really differ from his standard center-right, neoliberal agenda. The “Yellow Vest” protests are still ongoing, albeit at a reduced level from their heights late last year, and on Saturday an estimated 31,000 protesters turned out across the country. Demonstrations turned violent in Toulouse, where protesters set fire to several vehicles and police broke out the tear gas.

SPAIN

A new poll for the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia has the Socialist Party at 31 percent heading into the country’s April 28 election. The poll has the Socialists potentially taking a majority of the seats in parliament in a coalition with the leftist party Podemos and the Basque Nationalist Party. The Spanish right still looks to be in trouble, as its three largest parties—the People’s Party, Ciudadanos, and Vox—collectively only win about 160 seats in this survey, still 16 shy of a majority with no obvious coalition partners to help them make up the gap.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is looking to boost Venezuela’s National Bolivarian Militia to three million members from its current (according to the government) two million. It’s unclear whether this reflects some uncertainty about the military’s continued loyalty or is just a way for Maduro to broaden his (armed) support base in case of any possible outside intervention.

The Trump administration and opposition leader Juan Guaidó seem to be at a loss as to how to remove Maduro from power unless the Venezuelan military turns on him, and of course that’s not happening. The administration, having staked its Venezuela regime change policy on the likelihood of a military coup, now says it’s been thwarted by Cuba. It claims, absent any evidence that it’s willing to share, that there are thousands of Cuban agents placed throughout the Venezuelan military to monitor for potential defectors. If that’s true, it may be time to marvel again at the sight of The World’s Only Superpower™ getting proverbially pantsed by a country with a fraction of its size, wealth, or power.

The Trump administration illustrated its “good cop, bad cop” approach to Venezuela over the weekend, though since it involved Steve Mnuchin and Mike Pompeo maybe we should call it the “sociopathic aristocrat cop, belligerent idiot cop” approach. On Saturday, Mnuchin tried to entice the Venezuelan military toward a coup by suggesting that Venezuela could see billions of dollars worth of financing just as soon as Maduro is out of power. Meanwhile, in Colombia on Sunday, Pompeo insisted that the Trump administration “will continue to utilize every economic and political means at our disposal to help the Venezuelan people.” In this case we can assume “help the Venezuelan people” means “continue immiserating and starving them.” Really, since Pompeo delivered his remarks while touring a facility where potential humanitarian aid for Venezuela is being stored, he wasn’t even pretending otherwise. The message from the Trump administration to the Venezuelan people is pretty clear: if you want to eat or have access to decent healthcare again, get rid of Maduro for us.

COLOMBIA

The Trasandino pipeline in southwestern Colombia was bombed on Saturday, though it was offline at the time, and eastern Colombia’s Caño Limón pipeline reportedly began leaking and may have been attacked as well. It’s not clear who was behind the attack/attacks, but the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN) frequently strikes Colombian pipelines.

CENTRAL AMERICA

While organized crime, corruption, and economic weakness are the factors most often cited as driving Central American migrants north to seek asylum in the United States, climate change is increasingly adding to the mix and is likely to become an even bigger migration driver in the years to come:

Gradually rising temperatures, more extreme weather events and increasingly unpredictable patterns — like rain not falling when it should, or pouring when it shouldn’t — have disrupted growing cycles and promoted the relentless spread of pests.

The obstacles have cut crop production or wiped out entire harvests, leaving already poor families destitute.

Central America is among the regions most vulnerable to climate change, scientists say. And because agriculture employs much of the labor force — about 28 percent in Honduras alone, according to the World Bank — the livelihoods of millions of people are at stake.

Last year, the bank reported that climate change could lead at least 1.4 million people to flee their homes in Mexico and Central America and migrate during the next three decades.

HAITI

Haiti is suffering from frequent blackouts and fuel shortages that are increasing public unhappiness with President Jovenel Moïse. The issue is related to the political crisis in Venezuela, which had been Haiti’s main fuel supplier via its Petrocaribe consortium but had to stop supplying discounted oil to Caribbean nations last year. So the Haitians turned to US-based Novum Energy Trading Corporation, which worked out OK until the firm stopped shipments due to nonpayment. Many people seem to be blaming corruption around the financing deal that Haiti used to have with Petrocaribe, but whatever the cause the upshot now is that the Haitian people are once again suffering because of exploitation both at home and abroad.

UNITED STATES

Finally, I’ll leave you with the New Yorker’s Benjamin Wallace-Wells and his take on the development of Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy views heading into the 2020 campaign:

In the early summer of 2017, a little less than a year after his Presidential campaign had ended, Bernie Sanders spent a few days on a speaking tour in England, to promote the European version of his book “Our Revolution.” The Brexit resolution had passed twelve months earlier, a general election looked likely to consolidate the conservative hold on the country, and Sanders’s audiences—in the hundreds, though not the thousands—were anxious and alert. I was at those events, talking with the people who had come—skinny, older leftists and louche, cynical younger ones—and they were anticipating not just the old campaign hits but a broader explanation of why the world had suddenly gone so crazy and what could be done. Sanders had scarcely talked about foreign affairs in his 2016 campaign, but his framework had a natural extensibility. Under way in the world was a simple fight, Sanders said. On one side were oligarchs and the right-wing parties they had managed to corrupt. On the other were the people.

In the thirty months since Sanders’s 2016 campaign ended, in the petulance and ideological strife of the Democratic National Convention, he has become a more reliable partisan, just as progressivism has moved his way. He begins the 2020 Presidential campaign not as a gadfly but as a favorite, which requires a comprehensive vision among voters of how he would lead the free world. In 2017, Sanders hired his first Senate foreign-policy adviser, a progressive think-tank veteran named Matt Duss. Sanders gave major speeches—at Westminster College, in the United Kingdom, and at Johns Hopkins—warning that “what we are seeing is the rise of a new authoritarian axis” and urging liberals not just to defend the post-Cold War status quo but also to “reconceptualize a global order based on human solidarity.” In 2016, he had asked voters to imagine how the principles of democratic socialism could transform the Democratic Party. Now he was suggesting that they could also transform how America aligns itself in the world.