World update: April 20-21 2019

Stories from Syria, Iran, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Ukraine, and more

Happy Easter to those celebrating today, and a slightly belated Chag Sameach for those who are celebrating Passover!

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MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, ISIS fighters carried out multiple attacks targeting Syrian soldiers over the past several days across Homs and Deir Ezzor provinces, killing at least 35 people. The attacks, probably involving ISIS fighters who were able to sneak out of Baghouz before that town fell to the Syrian Democratic Forces, began on Thursday and spread through the area over the next couple of days. ISIS claims that it captured vehicles and weapons in the raids, which also killed at least six of its fighters.

Meanwhile, ISIS remnants who have taken up residence in the SDF’s al-Hol refugee camp are reportedly making life there miserable for everybody else:

A militant band of women loyal to the Islamic State is terrorizing others who fled the battlefront for this sprawling camp in northeastern Syria, demanding they adhere to the strict codes once enforced by the group and creating a vexing problem for the Kurdish-led forces controlling the site. 

In the teeming al-Hol displacement camp, the true believers have been threatening those they consider impious, brandishing knives, spitting and throwing stones at them, and even burning down their tents. Intelligence officials say Islamic State loyalists also have formed cells inside the camp to mete out punishment in a more systematic way.

The arrival of ISIS refugees from Baghouz reportedly changed conditions in the camp, which the SDF doesn’t really have the resources to maintain, almost overnight.

YEMEN

The Saudi-led coalition bombed a cave near Yemen’s presidential compound in Sanaa on Saturday. The Houthis are, or were at least, reportedly storing drones in the cave. They’ve made frequent use of their drones to attack, or try to attack, targets in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

TURKEY

Fighting between the Turkish military and Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgents in southeastern Turkey’s Hakkâri province early Saturday left four Turkish soldiers and 20 militants dead. The PKK fighters apparently attacked a Turkish military base, and the Turks responded by calling in airstrikes.

During the funeral service for one of those four soldiers in Ankara on Sunday, Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), was attacked by a mob. He seems OK, but this is the political climate in Turkey now, after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has spent the last several years conflating his political opponents with enemies, real and imagined, of the Turkish state itself. Having already largely buried the predominantly Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) by highlighting its somewhat tenuous links to the PKK, Erdoğan is now trying to tie the CHP to the PKK though that’s an even bigger reach.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Arab League voted on Sunday to authorize the payment of $100 million per month to the Palestinian Authority. That will help the PA make up for the tax remittances it’s no longer receiving from Israel. The Israelis announced earlier this year that they’re going to deduct payments that the PA makes to the families of people arrested or killed by Israeli authorities from those tax remittances, and the PA responded by rejecting the remittances altogether.

EGYPT

Egyptians voted on Saturday and Sunday in a referendum that will determine whether to amend the country’s constitution to leave Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in office until 2030 and grant him additional authority over the Egyptian judicial system. The amendments will almost certainly pass, and probably by a wide margin since Sisi is the kind of guy who likes to win elections with 95+ percent of the vote. Which means the only suspense is probably over turnout, and whether it will be merely apathetically low or insultingly low. Voting ends on Monday, though we know from previous Egyptian elections that Sisi isn’t above extending voting periods (and offering gifts to potential voters, which he’s reportedly already doing) if he wants to boost turnout.

SAUDI ARABIA

Attackers attempted to storm a Saudi domestic intelligence office in the town of Zulfi, in Riyadh province, on Sunday. According to Saudi officials the attack was “thwarted,” with four of the attackers killed, and authorities are currently clearing the scene of explosives that the assailants left behind. The Saudis believe ISIS was responsible, though the group hasn’t claimed the attack as yet.

IRAN

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei appointed Hossein Salami as the new commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on Sunday, replacing now-ex commander (since 2007) Mohammad Ali Jafari. Salami had been serving as Jafari’s deputy. The United States just designated the IRGC as a terrorist organization, and Salami if anything seems to be even more hardline than Jafari, so you can connect the dots there even though Khamenei offered no explanation for the move.

Salami is on the right, next to Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani (Wikimedia Commons)

Jafari has been reassigned to a seemingly much less prestigious post as the head of an Iranian cultural center:

The administration will, according to Reuters, create exemptions to its IRGC designation for foreign governments, companies, and non-governmental organizations that are working in Iran or in places where the IRGC is active, like Syria and Iraq. The effect of these exemptions would seemingly take most of the teeth out of the designation, except in one respect: individuals working for those organizations can apparently still be sanctioned. So ultimately this would seem to be about introducing more paranoia into the minds of anybody contemplating involvement with Iran, which is what’s underpinned most of the administration’s Iran policy so far.

Along those lines, the Washington Post’s Josh Rogin is reporting that the administration will not renew any waivers for the eight countries it’s currently allowing to purchase Iranian oil without triggering sanctions. Rogin’s reporting always requires a grain of salt, particularly since the Post discreetly labels it “opinion” and thereby allows him to convey his own views (or, say, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ views) in what otherwise has the appearance of straight reportage, but he’s usually not just making things up so at the very least he’s being told that’s what’s going to happen. Assuming it does come to pass, this move will raise oil prices, though if the Saudis increase production that increase could be offset. It will also force a decision for countries like Turkey, India, and China, which have continued to buy Iranian oil and have expressed hostility to extraterritorial US sanctions. Ankara has already suggested that it’s “expecting” its waiver to be renewed. Awkward!

Meanwhile, Axios is reporting that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday told a closed-door meeting of “Iranian-American community leaders” that the administration is not planning a military operation against Iran. Instead, and without saying it outright, Pompeo made it clear that the administration’s plan is to instigate an kind of uprising to overthrow the Iranian government, which is the goal of all of these sanctions. As in Venezuela, they want an unfriendly government gone and they don’t care how many people they need to starve or how much basic medical care they need to deny to achieve that. Pompeo notable distanced the administration from the Mujahedin-e Khalq, and also refused to guarantee that sanctions wouldn’t harm ordinary Iranians despite the administration’s many claims that it supports them.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

At least seven people, four of them civilians, were killed on Saturday in an attack on Afghanistan’s communications ministry office in Kabul. The attack reportedly lasted for several hours and was later claimed by ISIS.

Though their big planned meeting with representatives of the Afghan government on Friday was canceled, Taliban negotiators in Doha did meet on Saturday with a group of Afghan expat activists, including women’s rights activists, and apparently it went better than expected. What happens to Afghan women after the war ends and, presumably, the Taliban is returned to power in some fashion is one of the big questions surrounding a potential peace deal and US withdrawal. The Taliban have promised that Afghan women will be “respected within Islam,” but that can mean a lot of things and many of them aren’t great.

PAKISTAN

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan headed to Iran on Sunday for talks that will probably focus heavily on security issues in Baluchistan. Iran has frequently called on Pakistani authorities to do something about extremist groups, like Jaish ul-Adl, that conduct attacks in Iran from bases across the border in Pakistan. But now Islamabad says that the Baluch Raji Aajoi Saangar (BRAS) separatists who detained and executed 14 people in Pakistan on Thursday are based in Iran, and they’re asking Iranian authorities to take action.

SRI LANKA

At least 207 people have been killed and over 450 wounded in a series of terrorist bombings targeting Sri Lanka’s Christian population. The attackers struck three churches and four hotels. Two of the churches were located outside of Colombo but the rest of the targets were all in the country’s capital city. Details are sketchy—the Guardian, among other sites, is doing a live feed if you want to stay on top of developments—but it appears that most of the attacks involved suicide bombers. No group has claimed responsibility, but Sri Lankan authorities have admitted that they had prior knowledge of threats against Christian churches by “a little-known Islamist group” and have reportedly arrested at least eight people in connection with the attacks. Authorities have imposed a nationwide curfew and locked down social media and messaging services, if for no other reason than to control the spread of fake news. There have been reports about what could be reprisal attacks targeting Sri Lankan Muslims.

NORTH KOREA

Having complained about Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a couple of days ago, North Korean officials turned their ire toward National Security Advisor John Bolton on Saturday. Bolton told Bloomberg News on Wednesday that the chances of a third Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit depended on whether the Trump administration sees “a real indication from North Korea that they’ve made the strategic decision to give up nuclear weapons.” This prompted deputy North Korean foreign minister Choe Son-hui to say that Bolton “looks dim-sighted to me,” to call his comment “nonsense,” and to wonder whether he was joking or just doesn’t understand “the intentions of the top leaders” of North Korea and the US. So I guess they weren’t too pleased.

AFRICA

SUDAN

The major organizers of Sudan’s ongoing political protests met with the country’s ruling military junta on Sunday to discuss the possibility of transitioning power to a civilian government. It must have gone really, really well, because afterward they announced that they no longer recognize the junta’s authority and plan to “escalate” their protests demanding that transition. Sounds like everything is going great! The junta will, I’m sure, take this development in the spirit of constructive criticism and not as a threat or anything. Whatever happens next, the junta will have an extra $3 billion to spend thanks to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. The Gulf states, who were happy enough to see Bashir go, will be happier still to see the military stay in power lest the protesters take over and encourage other Arab populations to think about maybe overthrowing their own authoritarian governments.

The junta announced on Saturday that it has arrested several senior figures in the National Congress Party of former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir on corruption charges. The arrests came after suitcases packed with cash of multiple denominations were found in Bashir’s residence. I’m sure the junta leaders were shocked to find gambling taking place in that particular casino, but even though many of them were likely neck deep in any corruption that happened during Bashir’s reign they’ll likely use this cash as the pretext for a trial intended to get the Sudanese people on the military’s side.

LIBYA

Some of the most serious fighting yet hit southern Tripoli late Saturday after an airstrike and missile strikes were reported in the suburbs. The airstrike may have involved a drone but that’s unclear. If it was a drone it may signal that the UAE and Egypt have stepped up their support for Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army,” which is attacking Tripoli, as the LNA hasn’t used drones in the past. Earlier in the day on Saturday pro-government forces launched a counterattack against the LNA, whose offensive against the capital remains basically stalled on its southern outskirts.

MOROCCO

Thousands of people turned out on Sunday in Rabat to demand the release of dozens of Amazigh activists arrested by the Moroccan government for their involvement in the 2016-2017 Hirak Rif protest movement. Around 40 activists and journalists were sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to 20 years over the Hirak Rif.

MALI

A group of likely jihadist fighters attacked a military base near the town of Guiré, in western Mali’s Koulikoro province, early Sunday morning, killing at least 11 soldiers. The attack comes a day after at least one United Nations peacekeeper was killed when his convoy was ambushed in Mopti province, again probably by jihadists.

NIGERIA

One British woman and one Nigerian man were killed on Friday when gunmen raided a resort in Nigeria’s Kaduna state. Three people were kidnapped in the assault. It’s not clear who was responsible, but that part of Nigeria is prone to banditry, and given the target this may have been a kidnapping for ransom that went a bit off the rails.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Now that ISIS has officially declared a “Central African Province” in the DRC, the New York Times reports on the evidence that has been hinting at a growing ISIS presence there for some time now:

While the Allied Democratic Forces, or A.D.F., is an established rebel group with a decades-long history in the area, documentation collected by the Congo Research Group, an independent nonprofit run by a leading scholar of the country’s successive conflicts, shows that the militants have not only been espousing jihadist ideology, but have also been receiving funds from ISIS operatives.

Laren Poole, a co-author of the Congo Research Group report, said interviews with A.D.F. defectors showed that the rebels had received cash transfers from Waleed Ahmed Zein, a Kenyan national who was identified as an ISIS financial facilitator by the United States Treasury Department.

“We have been able to track the finances, down to bank accounts and receipts showing money moving from Britain, South Africa and Syria via Zein, through Uganda and into A.D.F. hands,” said Mr. Poole, adding, “It’s not a lax connection.”

The connection may not be lax but it’s still far from clear how deep it runs. ISIS has lots of provinces these days but even its most prominent, like its “West Africa Province,” seem more involved in local or regional grievances than in the international jihadi movement.

EUROPE

UKRAINE

Exit polling and partial results point to television comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy winning a massive landslide victory in Sunday’s Ukrainian presidential runoff, pulling in perhaps over 70 percent of the vote. That margin would exceed even most of the pre-runoff polling and represents a pretty unmistakable rebuke to incumbent Petro Poroshenko and the rest of the Ukrainian political establishment. Poroshenko has already conceded.

What happens now is going to be interesting. The closest Zelenskiy has ever come to holding office is playing a fictional Ukrainian president on TV—it’s not a stretch to say this would be like Julia-Louis Dreyfus winning the 2020 US presidential election. He wasn’t exactly specific about his plans during the election, either, and his victory seems to have had much more to do with anger toward Poroshenko and the aforementioned establishment than with any positive feeling people had toward Zelenskiy, though he is certainly a popular TV star. He’s promised not to default on Ukraine’s International Monetary Fund loans, pleasing Western financiers, and there are concerns about his ties to Ukrainian oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, but beyond that Zelenskiy is still mostly a big question mark.

POLAND

US ambassador to Poland Georgette Mosbacher tweeted out a Passover greeting on Friday, and because Poland is a country with extremely normal politics, she was promptly criticized for it. Krystyna Pawlowicz of the ruling Law and Justice Party called the seemingly harmless tweet a “provocation,” and that was one of the milder reactions. Luckily Law and Justice leaders keep assuring everybody that Poland doesn’t have an antisemitism problem, so we can rest assured that these complaints must have been made for some other reason.

REPUBLIC OF NORTHERN MACEDONIA

North Macedonia’s presidential election is heading to a runoff on May 5 because no candidate won a majority of the vote in Sunday’s first round and because turnout was too low for the vote to have counted anyway. Social Democratic candidate Stevo Pendarovski is winning the partial count at 42.68 percent and nationalist candidate Gordana Siljanovska is close behind at 42.55 percent. Turnout was only 41 percent, and because Macedonian law requires a candidate to win a majority of registered voters in the first round there would be no mathematical way to avoid a runoff even if one of the candidates had significantly outperformed the other. The Macedonian presidency is a largely ceremonial office, but the election has presented yet another opportunity for the country to settle its long-standing beef between its nationalist and pro-European Union factions…which according to this result seems to still be going strong.

FRANCE

The French billionaires who quickly pledged hundreds of millions of euros to help rebuild Notre Dame Cathedral seem to have also breathed some new life into the flagging Yellow Vest protest movement. Saturday’s edition of the protests was one of the tensest and most violent in weeks, with demonstrators in Paris and elsewhere clearly angry that those billionaires have plenty of money to help rebuild a building but apparently can’t be asked to pay more in taxes to support social programs that would help human beings. French police arrested more than 200 protesters and there were reports of significant property damage.

SPAIN

Two more polls, one released Saturday and the other Monday, point to the same outcome that most other polls have shown ahead of Spain’s April 28 election. Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialists should emerge as the largest party in the Spanish parliament, far short of a majority in the 350 seat legislature but able to form a ruling coalition alongside the left-wing Podemos party and at least one of the small regional parties that are currently supporting Sánchez’s government. Spain’s right-wing bloc (the People’s Party, Ciudadanos, and Vox), meanwhile, collectively should fall short of a majority.

UNITED KINGDOM

Northern Irish police have arrested two men in connection with the murder of journalist Lyra McKee on Thursday during a riot in Derry. They are believed to have been involved with the New IRA and were arrested under the Terrorism Act. Authorities are calling for calm, but tensions over the possibility of a no-deal Brexit and the return of a hard Irish border may already be fueling new violence in the region.

Meanwhile, in London, a group of climate protesters called Extinction Rebellion have been engaged in a week-long demonstration in several areas of the city, including Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus, and Parliament Square. Police have arrested more than 950 people involved with the protests, and on Sunday cleared the protesters from all but the area around Marble Arch though people were still reportedly trying to get back into areas that police were locking down. The group has been engaging in civil disobedience since last year calling on the British government to do more to reduce carbon emissions.

AMERICAS

NICARAGUA

Hundreds of Nicaraguans turned a Good Friday procession in Managua into a demonstration against President Daniel Ortega and his government. Police responded with concussion grenades and tear gas but say they arrested nobody. Nicaragua went through a lengthy round of anti-government protests that began in April of last year, but those were eventually suppressed by the government with over 300 people reportedly killed in the process. A planned demonstration on Wednesday to mark the anniversary of the protests was nixed by Nicaraguan authorities, and meanwhile both the US and Canadian governments announced new sanctions against Ortega’s government over the past week.

UNITED STATES

Speaking of countries with extremely normal politics, I give you the United States and its ever-present addiction to defense spending:

The Trump administration has proposed $750 billion in defense spending as part of its budget request to Congress for next year, as well as steep cuts to domestic programs in health care and education.

House Democrats in their budget proposed increasing defense spending to $733 billion a year — an increase in line with inflation — in exchange for Republican support for an increase in domestic spending that would be twice as large.

Under either budget plan, the United States is expected to spend more on its military in 2020 than at any point since World War II, except for a handful of years at the height of the Iraq War, said Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a think tank focused on foreign policy.

The rationale here is that 18 years of war since 9/11 have left the US military unable to modernize. But the thing is, if you can’t fight your wars and improve your military while spending as much on defense as, say, the next 10 countries combined, then you’re doing something wrong. Maybe, and I’m just brainstorming here, fighting multiple conflicts for almost two full decades in response to a single terrorist attack, most of which have little or nothing to do with that attack, is a bad idea. I know, I know, that’s irrational. Spending $750 billion/year and up on defense, on the other hand, is perfectly rational.