World update: April 2 2019

Stories from Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Germany, and more!

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MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Although they declared victory over ISIS more than a week ago, the Syrian Democratic Forces are still “rooting out” ISIS fighters from the area around Baghouz in eastern Syria. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates that “scores” of ISIS fighters are still holed up outside the town, and the US-led coalition is still conducting airstrikes around their positions.

YEMEN

The Houthis are refusing to allow World Food Program technicians to gain access to the important Red Sea Mills facility in Hudaydah. The site holds a large amount of grain that’s been inaccessible for humanitarian relief purposes because of the fighting in the port city, and the WFP is trying to get inside the facility to fumigate it to prevent rotting. The Houthis claim the site is unsafe and pro-government forces will attack the WFP personnel if they enter it, but that seems a bit dubious.

TURKEY

It’s far too soon to know what impact Sunday’s local elections may have on Turkish politics—we don’t even know that the results in Istanbul are going to survive a government challenge—but the Guardian’s Bethan McKernan suggests that the apparent new mayor of that city, CHP’s Ekrem İmamoğlu, could be someone to watch. It’s worth noting, again, that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan got his political start as mayor of Istanbul back in the 1990s, so that gig can definitely be a stepping stone to bigger things.

LEBANON

Journalist Gareth Smyth suggests that in addition to overwhelming Lebanon’s capacity to accommodate them (their presence has raised the country’s population density to 600 people per square mile) Syrian refugees (who are predominantly Sunni) may destabilize Lebanon’s sectarian balance, and therefore its perpetually fragile government, if they don’t start returning home. Of course there’s no reason for most of them to return home, not when most of Syria lies in ruins and they have no assurances as to how they’ll be treated if they do go back.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man on Tuesday during a clash with protesters outside of the West Bank city of Ramallah.

In Gaza, on the other hand, things are actually looking up for a change. Israeli authorities have decided, as part of an ongoing Egypt-brokered negotiation with Hamas, to extend Gaza’s legal fishing limit from 6-9 miles offshore to 12-15 miles offshore, which obviously opens things up considerably for Gazan fishermen. There are unconfirmed reports that those negotiations reached a real breakthrough last week that would amount to de facto Israeli recognition of Hamas as the legitimate government of Gaza rather than a terrorist organization, and de facto Hamas recognition of Israel’s legitimacy as a state. It would see Israel ease its blockade on Gaza contingent on Hamas refraining from any armed action against Israel, including violent protesting at the Gaza fence. If there is a deal in place, it would explain the fishing decision as well as the calmer-than-expected protests over the weekend.

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi media is reporting that the kingdom’s air defenses on Wednesday intercepted two Houthi drones bound for the city of Khamis Mushait. It says five people were wounded by falling debris.

The Saudi government is reportedly buying the Khashoggi family’s silence about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi last fall:

The children of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi have received million-dollar houses in the kingdom and monthly five-figure payments as compensation for the killing of their father, according to current and former Saudi officials as well as people close to the family.

Khashoggi’s two sons and two daughters may also receive much larger payouts — possibly tens of millions of dollars apiece — as part of “blood money” negotiations that are expected to ensue when the trials of Khashoggi’s accused killers are completed in the coming months, according to the officials and others who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks.

The previously undisclosed payments are part of an effort by Saudi Arabia to reach a long-term arrangement with Khashoggi family members, aimed in part at ensuring that they continue to show restraint in their public statements about the killing of their father by Saudi operatives in Istanbul six months ago, the officials said.

IRAN

The Trump administration says that three of the eight countries that received waivers from Iran oil sanctions in November have since reduced their imports of Iranian oil to zero. It has not named the countries.

Speaking of sanctions: in the face of substantial evidence to the contrary, the Trump administration and its allies in the “Bomb Bomb Iran” community have been looking for any sign that US penalties are bringing Iran to its knees. At LobeLog, Paul Pillar takes one of the more prominent members of that community to task:

It also is not surprising that when The New York Times ran a story by Ben Hubbard, reporting from Beirut, about the financial strains that Hezbollah and other Iranian clients are feeling, columnist Bret Stephens jumped into action. “Heavens to Betsy,” Stephens exclaimed in a column in the next day’s Times, arguing that this must mean President Barack Obama was wrong when he said sanctions relief “wouldn’t make much difference in terms of Iran’s capacity to make mischief in the Middle East.”

Actually, Obama was right. The fallacy that Stephens, and others who defend the Trump administration’s re-imposition of nuclear sanctions, are promoting is that making life more difficult, costly, or painful for someone else somehow advances U.S. interests—at least if the U.S. government sufficiently hates whoever that someone else is. That would be true only if schadenfreude were a U.S. national interest, which it isn’t. Pain infliction serves U.S. interests only if it changes the targeted country’s behavior in a desired direction, by either limiting its capabilities or inducing it to change its policies.  Regarding Iran over the past year, this is not happening.

It is particularly silly to crow about the financial limitations of Iranian proxies like Hezbollah, which by design don’t cost that much and are plenty capable of sustaining themselves even when forced to make do with less support from Tehran.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

A Taliban unit (probably—they haven’t claimed responsibility) attacked another Afghan security checkpoint late Monday, this time in Balkh province. The Taliban fighters reportedly killed at least eight Afghan personnel in a three-hour shootout.

PAKISTAN

Facebook has reportedly removed hundreds of pages from India and Pakistan over suspicious activity. Most of these were linked to India’s opposition Congress party and seem to have been doing some Hashtag Fake News ahead of the national election that starts on April 11. But around a hundred of the deleted pages were apparently set up by the Pakistani military’s public relations office as, among other things, “fan pages” for the Pakistani military. Some of these pages may have been used as part of the Pakistani military’s ongoing crackdown against anybody, but especially journalists, who criticize it.

KASHMIR

Indian and Pakistani forces exchanged fire across Kashmir’s Line of Control on Tuesday, killing at least seven people—three Pakistani soldiers, one Indian paramilitary, and three civilians. After February’s excitement any violence in Kashmir is going to raise anxiety about escalation, but skirmishes across the border like this are pretty common and rarely lead to any heavier fighting.

INDIA

NASA says that India’s recent test of an anti-satellite weapon has increased the risk of space debris hitting the International Space Station by 44 percent over ten days. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine was highly critical of the test, calling it “not compatible with the future of human spaceflight that we need to see have happen.” Indian officials insist they carried out the test in low orbit to avoid threatening the ISS, but it would appear that’s not quite so.

AFRICA

ALGERIA

A day after announcing that he would be departing the Algerian presidency before the end of the month, Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned for real on Tuesday. The announcement prompted hundreds of people to take to the streets in celebration, though it remains to be seen whether this resignation will be enough to end the anti-government protests that have rocked Algeria for several weeks now. In the end it seems pressure from the Algerian military forced Bouteflika out, after army chief of staff Ahmed Gaed Salah reiterated his earlier call to have Bouteflika declared unfit for office. If that’s what finally did the trick, it doesn’t bode well for the prospect of any deeper political change.

Abdelkader Bensalah, speaker of the upper house of Algeria’s parliament, will now take over as interim president for a maximum of 90 days before an election must be held. Bensalah is a diehard Bouteflika loyalist so he’s unlikely to make any drastic changes in how things are run.

WESTERN SAHARA

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres told the Security Council on Monday that “a solution” to the Western Sahara conflict “is possible.” It’s unclear why he feels this way. The Sahrawi resistance in Western Sahara has been a frozen conflict for decades, with Morocco refusing to allow a referendum on independence even though the UN peacekeeping mission that arrived in the disputed territory in the 1970s was tasked with holding such a vote. The two sides did hold talks in December for the first time in six years, but as Guterres acknowledges it’s going to take some time to build trust before negotiations can really make any progress.

BURKINA FASO

Eight people were killed on Monday in an attack on a village in the Zoaga region, along Burkina Faso’s border with Ghana. The cause appears to have been a dispute between local tribal factions.

NIGERIA

Nigerian journalist Philip Obaji Jr. argues that ISIS-West Africa Province has been gaining ground in the Lake Chad region by acting less like its parent organization and more like al-Qaeda:

For one, it has avoided the Islamic State’s vulnerability to leadership changes by favoring the kind of amorphous structure that has helped other al Qaeda affiliates, such as the Nusra Front in Syria and Somalia’s al-Shabab, survive attacks on their top brass.

In addition, where the Islamic State focused on carving out claims to territory at the expense of the population who lives there, ISWAP has attempted to co-opt rather than coerce. In fact, rather than fighting to gain territory and attempting to hold on to it by governing with brutality as the Islamic State has done in Iraqi towns such as Fallujah and Mosul, ISWAP, like al Qaeda affiliates, has placed great emphasis on cultivating relationships with local communities and taking advantage of those strong ties to exert great influence on how they function.

This makes sense. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb remains sort of the mothership for jihadi groups in West Africa—even the ones that aren’t affiliated with al-Qaeda—and it’s probably had a bigger formative impact on ISWAP than ISIS itself has.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

An explosion at a Russian military academy in St. Petersburg on Tuesday wounded four people. At this point as far as I can tell there’s no indication what exactly exploded or why, except that it doesn’t appear to have been a piece of military ordinance. Tuesday marked the start of a trial related to the April 2017 terrorist attack on the St. Petersburg metro, so there may be a connection there.

NATO foreign ministers are meeting in Washington later this week as part of a commemoration of the alliance’s 70th anniversary, and Russia is expected to be high on the agenda. For one thing, NATO members are expected to discuss ways to increase the alliance’s military presence in the Black Sea to counter Russian activity there. For another, Turkey’s impending purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense system, and its rapidly fraying relationship with the US, is likely to be a major topic of conversation.

UKRAINE

Former Ukrainian prime minister and third place finisher in Sunday’s presidential election Yulia Tymoshenko is accusing President Petro Poroshenko of rigging the vote in order to finish ahead of her and therefore win a spot in the April 21 runoff against first place finisher Volodymyr Zelenskiy. While it’s a little weird that Poroshenko would rig the vote to put himself in second place and likely on track to lose the runoff, he is really unpopular so maybe he figured it would be more believable this way? Either that or people just really don’t like Tymoshenko.

GERMANY

Angela Merkel’s governing coalition is already hanging by a thread, but it may come apart over Germany’s failure to hit (or even approach, really) its NATO commitment to spend two percent of its GDP on defense by 2024. Merkel’s Social Democratic Party coalition partner is demanding that the government cut defense spending in next year’s budget, to free up funds for social spending that might improve the government’s sagging popularity. In fact, SPD may actually be trying to break up the coalition at this point, so that it can get out of what’s been an extremely bad political situation for the party. But since Germany is already only going to make it to about 1.5 percent of GDP on defense by 2024 as it is, these cuts are likely to be a major irritant to other NATO members, in particular to Donald Trump who really has fixated on this two percent thing.

On the one hand, it’s absurd that Europe’s wealthiest country—one that runs budget surpluses every year—is free riding on national defense. On the other hand, the last time NATO had a real purpose was about 30 years ago, and maybe we should consider whether that two percent target (or, hey, NATO’s continued existence) actually makes any sense.

UNITED KINGDOM

Theresa May took a bold step toward maybe getting a Brexit deal on Tuesday, one I frankly would not have predicted she’d take. She’s decided to stop trying to pander to Brexit hardliners in her Conservative Party and instead try to make a deal that can earn enough Labour votes to get through parliament. That will likely mean a “soft Brexit,” keeping the UK in a customs union and single market with the European Union, with all that entails as far as maintaining the free movement of people and other EU obligations. This may be a bridge too far for May, but it will certainly be a bridge too far for many Tories, and if her talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn actually go anywhere (assuming she’s doing this in good faith and not using Labour to threaten the Tories and DUP, which is certainly possible) it could well rip the Conservative Party apart. Which could lead to some dark places—already there are indications that pro-Brexit sentiment is turning violent.

May will now take her idea for talks with Labour to the EU to ask for another extension to the April 12 Brexit deadline to allow her time to see if it can work. While the EU may still tell her to get bent, this announcement that she’s drastically changing course probably gives her the best possible chance of getting that extension.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

Venezuela’s Constituent Assembly voted on Tuesday to strip opposition leader Juan Guaidó of his immunity, meaning he could now be prosecuted for violating a travel ban earlier this year and for, well, that whole “declaring himself president” thing. Whether Nicolás Maduro wants to try prosecuting Guaidó, which will undoubtedly reinvigorate the US-led international opposition to his government, remains a mystery. Guaidó doesn’t recognize the assembly’s legitimacy—it was created to usurp legislative powers from the National Assembly that Guaidó heads—so it’s not like he’s going to turn himself in to face charges.

UNITED STATES

Finally, writer David Klion argues that it may be time to rethink how we portray the United States and its place in the world:

There are two conventional ways of understanding America’s global role. According to one theory, the bipolar world of the Cold War has given way to a unipolar world in which the United States is the undisputed hegemon. Some observers see this as a good thing and champion American empire, while others see it as a bad thing and seek to resist American empire, but both sides agree that American empire is the defining feature of our era.

A second theory, only different from the first by degrees, asserts that the post-Cold War world is multipolar, with the United States as the clear dominant power among many potential rivals, including countries such as China that might conceivably surpass the United States down the line.

But what if neither theory is correct? The near-universal understanding of the United States as a powerful, unified global actor is flawed and in need of revision. The United States is less a great power exerting its will and more an open-air market for global corruption, in which outside powers can purchase influence, shape political outcomes, and play factions against each other in the service of their own competing agendas.