World update: August 10-11 2019

Stories from Yemen, India, Italy, and more

Eid Mubarak to those who are celebrating! Sunday was also Tisha B’Av on the Jewish calendar, and while there’s no greeting offered on that date I did want to be sure to note it here.

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

August 9 (or so), 378: A Gothic army annihilates a larger Roman army at the Battle of Adrianople (modern Edirne). Some two-thirds of the Roman soldiers were killed, including Emperor Valens. The virtual eradication of an imperial army opened the door for the Goths to move into the empire for good and contributed to the eventual fall of the empire in the west.

August 9, 1945: The United States drops its second atomic bomb, this time on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, while the Soviet army invades Japanese-occupied Manchuria. The combination of the atomic bombings and the entry of the Soviets into the war against Japan convinced Japanese leaders to finally surrender. The Soviet invasion also turned Manchuria into a natural base of operations for Mao Zedong’s communist forces in the ensuing Chinese Civil War. Some 80,000 people are believed to have died of causes that can be connected with the Nagasaki bombing.

August 10, 1792: French revolutionaries storm the Tuileries Palace in Paris and capture King Louis XVI after massacring his Swiss Guards. Upwards of 1000 people were killed in the violent confrontation, which shifted the French Revolution from a demand for reform and limits on the power of the monarchy into something considerably more radical.

18th-19th century French painter Jean Duplessis-Bertaux’s Capture of the Tuileries Palace 

August 10, 1920: The Ottoman Empire signs the Treaty of Sèvres, formally ending its role in World War I and surrendering to the Allied Powers. The terms, which required the empire to give up not only all of its Arab territory but most of its Anatolian territory as well, were so lopsided that they quickly sparked the Turkish War of Independence. The new Republic of Turkey emerged victorious from that war, and the terms of the ensuing 2023 Treaty of Lausanne superseded Sèvres.

August 11, 1473: The Battle of Otlukbeli

August 11, 1960: Chadian Independence Day

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

The Syrian army over the weekend reportedly seized the town of Hubait, in the southwestern part of Idlib province. It’s the most significant gain the Syrians have made on their northwestern front since capturing the nearby town of Kafr Nabudah, in Hama province, in May, and it brings the Syrian military deeper into Idlib and closer to the rebel-held portion of Syria’s vital M5 highway, which runs between Damascus and Aleppo. It also puts them closer to Khan Shaykhun, the key town in southern Idlib and a Syrian target for months now. At least 100 combatants were killed in heavy fighting on Saturday and monitors reported some 2000 pro-government air and artillery strikes across the rebel-held enclave.

YEMEN

The United Nations estimates that upwards of 40 people have been killed and 260 wounded in fighting between southern separatists and presidential guard forces—both nominally pro-government factions—in and around the city of Aden since Thursday. The situation hit something of a crescendo on Saturday, when the separatists, the armed wing of the “Southern Transitional Council,” more or less seized control of the city, a major development in what would be the capital of a new “South Yemen” should one emerge.

The Saudis, who lead the pro-government coalition fighting against the Houthis to the north, appeared to force a ceasefire on the parties that took effect at 1 AM Sunday (local time). There were then reports that the separatists were negotiating a handover that would leave them in possession of Aden’s presidential palace. But any talk of a ceasefire and negotiations was contradicted by reports Sunday morning that the Saudis had undertaken airstrikes to dislodge the separatists from the palace and other parts of Aden now in their hands. Presumably that will up the death toll but it’s too early to say by how much. Those strikes happened amid other reports that the STC forces have withdrawn from much of the city but are defending the government facilities and military positions they’ve taken. The STC is denying that its forces have pulled back, while the Saudis say more airstrikes will be forthcoming if they don’t. Nevertheless, the separatists insist that they are “committed” to a ceasefire.

I’ve written for some time here and back during our WordPress days that the current Yemeni civil war was only the first of at least two conflicts that were going to have to be fought before some kind of stability emerges there. The second would have to reckon with the reemergence of southern secessionism. It would appear that second conflict isn’t going to wait for the first one to end. The recent fighting in Aden highlights the fundamental incompatibility of the two big factions in the “pro-government” coalition—the actual pro-government forces, including the Islah/Muslim Brotherhood party, supported by Saudi Arabia; and the STC, backed by the UAE. It also points to a potential breakdown in the Saudi-Emirati relationship more generally, as their agendas diverge. Mutual hatred of Iran can paper over a lot of differences for a while, but it can’t paper over all of them indefinitely.

Speaking of chaotic factionalism, the Saudis are denying that they had anything to do with the death of Ibrahim Badreddin al-Houthi, brother of Houthi leader leader Abdel-Malek al-Houthi. They’re claiming he was killed as a result of “infighting” within the Houthi ranks, in contrast to the Houthi claim that he was “assassinated” by the Saudi-led coalition.

IRAQ

One US service member was killed on Saturday during an operation with Iraqi security forces in Nineveh province. The Pentagon hasn’t released any additional details.

UPDATE: The Pentagon has since identified the soldier as Scott Koppenhafer, and says he “was killed on Saturday by enemy small arms fire while conducting combat operations in Ninewah province.”

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli forces shot and killed one person, whom they described as an “armed terrorist” who started shooting at the Israelis, at the Gaza fence on Sunday. The day before, they killed four “terrorists” reportedly crossing out of Gaza while heavily armed. None of Gaza’s militant groups has acknowledged their membership.

Also on Sunday, Muslims celebrating Eid al-Adha clashed with Israeli police at the al-Aqsa/Temple Mount compound in East Jerusalem. Worshipers there to celebrate Eid al-Adha responded to rumors that police were planning to open the site to Jewish worshipers commemorating Tisha B’Av, which led to the first clash with police. The police then did indeed open the site to Jewish worshipers, leading to more clashes. At least 14 people were wounded in the violence.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Houthis on Saturday said they’d launched another drone strike at Saudi Arabia’s Abha Airport, but there’s been no word of any disruption there.

ASIA

KASHMIR

The Pakistani government plans, with Chinese help, to bring a resolution before the United Nations Security Council condemning the Indian government for revoking Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy. This is going to be an interesting test for the US, which has no particular dog in the Kashmir fight but has compelling reasons arguing both for and against a veto. On the one hand, its relationship with Pakistan has deteriorated quite a bit, and yet it needs Islamabad’s help to close a peace deal with the Afghan Taliban. On the other hand, it views India as a crucial strategic partner to help counter China, and yet also also has some significant trade-related grievances with New Delhi.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has a report on life inside Kashmir since Indian security forces locked the region down in advance of the autonomy announcement, and it sounds about how you’d expect it to sound:

On the streets of Srinagar, Kashmir’s biggest city, security officers tied black bandannas over their faces, grabbed their guns and took positions behind checkpoints. People glanced out the windows of their homes, afraid to step outside. Many were cutting back on meals and getting hungry.

A sense of coiled menace hung over the locked-down city and the wider region on Saturday, a day after a huge protest erupted into clashes between Kashmiris and Indian security forces.

Shops were shut. A.T.M.s had run dry. Just about all lines to the outside world — internet, mobile phones, even landlines — remained severed, rendering millions of people incommunicado.

INDIA

Indian writer Siddhartha Deb has harsh words for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s treatment of Muslims, exemplified by what it’s doing in Kashmir, and its overall governance of India:

The BJP’s hatred of Muslims is an inheritance from its century-old parent organization, the cultish paramilitary Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh; the chief of the RSS in the 1940s, M.S. Golwalkar, argued that Muslims were India’s Jews and that Hindus needed to manifest a “race spirit” similar to that of the Nazis. Now, BJP’s targets have expanded to include not just Muslims, but anybody critical of Modi, the party, and Hindutva. 

Such hate works, especially as little else in India does. In 2014, Modi and the BJP were voted into power despite their blood-stained record of pogroms and extrajudicial executions in Gujarat. Devotees of the Hindu right were joined in their support by liberals, both in India and in the West, who balanced Modi’s violent, paranoid, and authoritarian personality against the good governance he would supposedly usher in. But while Modi and the party are enamored of capitalism, they especially like crony capitalism, and have only managed to deepen India’s economic, environmental and social crises. 

CHINA

Hong Kong was hit with protests again on Sunday, and they again turned violent with police at one point even reportedly firing tear gas canisters into crowded metro stations. A couple of protesters reportedly hurled makeshift explosives at the cops. The demonstrations are expected to continue on Monday at Hong Kong’s international airport and outside police headquarters.

The Chinese government has been on something of a mission to convince the rest of the world that it isn’t mistreating its Uyghur population, inviting the UN, foreign governments, and journalists into Xinjiang on not-at-all-staged tours of the region that are supposed to prove how great the Uyghurs have it. But New York Times reporters say they saw evidence that not only are Uyghur internment camps still operating, but new ones are being built, and those who “graduate” from the camps are being moved into forced labor in nearby factories. An interview with a Uyghur who had supposedly been released from his camp, Abduweili Kebayir, produced more questions than answers, as he gave seemingly rehearsed answers in front of a Chinese official who seemed to direct the questioning, in a house that appeared to be staged for the purposes of the interview.

NORTH KOREA

Saturday’s North Korean weapons test apparently involved two short-range ballistic missiles of some unknown “new type.” This missile appears to be similar to, but clearly distinct from, the KN-23 missile the North Koreans probably tested late last month. Amid the flurry of five weapons tests since July 25, it’s been hard to tell whether Pyongyang has been testing short range missiles or rockets. It’s claimed both. All of the weapons it’s been testing appear to use solid fuel, which makes them easier and quicker to fire since they can be stored already fueled, unlike liquid fueled devices.

According to Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s recent “beautiful letter” to him included a “small apology” for all the weapons testing, amid a bigger North Korean complaint about US-South Korean military exercises. The North Koreans have said they will not resume any talks with South Korea unless the exercises are stopped or Seoul offers “a plausible excuse or an explanation” as to why they’re being held.

AFRICA

LIBYA

A car bombing in Benghazi on Saturday killed five people with the UN mission in Libya (UNSMIL), three UN staff and two local guards. Another 10 people were wounded in the blast. There’s been no claim of responsibility.

Meanwhile, the UN managed on Saturday to broker an Eid truce in the fighting around Tripoli, when Khalifa Haftar and his “Libyan National Army” joined Libya’s Government of National Accord in agreeing to the ceasefire. The LNA waited until after the deadline set by the UN to accept the truce, but it did go into effect at 3 PM in Tripoli and extends through 3 PM Monday.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

Opposition groups estimated that some 60,000 people (police put the number at 20,000) turned out to protest in Moscow on Saturday calling for free city elections next month. The Russian capital has seen several demonstrations in recent weeks, in response to a decision by election authorities to bar many opposition candidates from running. This protest was authorized by city officials so it seems to have gone relatively smoothly, but still it’s believed that around 245 people were arrested, plus another 80 at a similar demonstration in St. Petersburg. Although technically they’re over local elections, the protests have taken on the overtone of a national movement opposing Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism.

Meanwhile, Russian officials over the weekend posthumously decorated the five people who died in a still-mysterious explosion during a rocket engine test in northern Russia last week. That explosion caused radiation levels in the city of Severodvinsk to spike and led Russian officials to close part of the White Sea to civilian ships for one month. Analysts seem to have concluded that the Russians were testing a nuclear-powered cruise missile, and the Russians have offered that they were testing an “isotope power source for a liquid-fueled rocket engine.” That’s consistent with the nuclear-powered missile theory and is probably the closest Moscow will ever get to providing a straight answer.

ITALY

Matteo Salvini’s plans for a new Italian election are hitting some turbulence, as the former leader of Italy’s main opposition party is objecting to a potential no confidence vote. Matteo Renzi, who used to head the opposition Democratic Party, argued Sunday that instead of holding a snap election right before parliament begins considering the 2020 budget, Italy should come under a caretaker government and hold elections after the budget process is over. If they voted in unison, the Five Star Movement—Salvini’s current coalition partner—and the Democrats could block any no-confidence vote as they jointly control a slim majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies. But it’s not at all clear that Renzi has enough influence within his party to make that happen. Italian President Sergio Mattarella may also decide on his own to delay parliament’s dissolution, even if a no-confidence vote does pass.

AMERICAS

GUATEMALA

It’s too early to say who’s on top in Guatemala’s presidential runoff, pitting former first lady Sandra Torres against right winger Alejandro Giammattei. Both candidates have expressed opposition to the Trump administration’s recent “safe third country” agreement with current President Jimmy Morales, which would allow the US government to transfer asylum seekers to Guatemala while their cases are heard. With some 80 percent of the Guatemalan public also opposed to that deal, according to polling, whoever wins is going to be under substantial pressure to undo it.

UNITED STATES

Finally, Center for International Policy researchers Ben Freeman, Nia Harris, and Cassandra Stimpson try to debunk the pernicious but mostly BS claim that higher levels of military spending translate into more jobs:

Despite being this country’s and the world’s top weapons maker, Lockheed isn’t the exception but the norm. From 2012 to 2018, the unemployment rate in the U.S. plummeted from roughly 8% to 4%, with more than 13 million new jobs added to the economy. Yet, in those same years, three of the five top defense contractors slashed jobs. In 2018, the Pentagon committed approximately $118 billion in federal money to those firms, including Lockheed -- nearly half of all the money it spent on contractors. This was almost $12 billion more than they had received in 2012. Yet, cumulatively, those companies lost jobs and now employ a total of 6,900 fewer employees than they did in 2012, according to their SEC filings.

In addition to the reductions at Lockheed, Boeing slashed 21,400 jobs and Raytheon cut 800 employees from its payroll. Only General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman added jobs -- 13,400 and 16,900 employees, respectively -- making that total figure look modestly better. However, even those “gains” can’t qualify as job creation in the normal sense, since they resulted almost entirely from the fact that each of those companies bought another Pentagon contractor and added its employees to its own payroll. CSRA, which General Dynamics acquired in 2018, had 18,500 employees before the merger, while Orbital ATK, which General Dynamics acquired last year, had 13,900 employees. Subtract these 32,400 jobs from the corporate totals and job losses at the firms become staggering.

In addition, those employment figures include all company employees, even those now working outside the U.S. Lockheed is the only top five Pentagon contractor that provides information on the percentage of its employees in the U.S., so if the other firms are shipping jobs overseas, as Lockheed has done and as Raytheon is planning to do, far more than 6,900 full-time jobs in the U.S. have been lost in the last six years.

You’ll be just stunned to learn, as I was, that a hefty chunk of that federal government windfall went—at least at Lockheed and General Dynamics—to vastly increasing the pay of top executives. Nobody could have predicted that.