World update: August 13 2019

Stories from Syria, Russia, Colombia, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

August 12, 1099: The Battle of Ascalon

August 12, 1121: The Battle of Didgori

August 12, 1687: The Battle of Mohács

August 13, 1521: Spanish and allied forces under Hernán Cortés conquer Tenochtitlan and capture the Aztec Emperor Cuauhtémoc. It’s estimated that somewhere between 100,000 and 240,000 people were killed during the two and a half month siege. Cuauhtémoc remained in place as a puppet ruler, but the Aztec Empire was over and Cortés eventually executed him in 1525.

August 13, 1898: In the Battle of Manila, a US army defeats the city’s Spanish defenders, ending the Spanish-American War in the Philippines. And by that I mean that the US and Spanish armies engaged in an extended mock battle in order to effect a prearranged handover of the city to the US and prevent it from falling into the hands of Philippine rebels. Yes, the whole thing was staged. US and Spanish officers worked out a surrender days earlier and met on August 10 to choreograph a final “battle” in order to keep the rebels from getting suspicious. Despite that, six US and 49 Spanish soldiers were killed in the engagement, when a Spanish unit opened fire on an approaching US line that had been unexpectedly joined by Philippine forces. Unsurprisingly, the Philippine-American War broke out only a few months later.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, fighting between pro-government forces and rebels in Idlib and Latakia provinces on Tuesday left at least 59 combatants dead on both sides. At least three civilians were also killed in airstrikes on the town of Khan Shaykhun.

The US has reportedly sent a team to southeastern Turkey to discuss the details of a possible safe zone in northern Syria. At this point the only thing on which Ankara and Washington have agreed is that there should be a safe zone. Well, OK, they’ve also agreed to set up a “joint operations center” to oversee the implementation of the safe zone. So that’s something. But in terms what that safe zone is actually going to be, so far there’s nothing to report. A cynic might even speculate that the joint operations center was set up hastily, in an effort to appease the Turks and head off the possibility of an Turkish offensive against the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia (at least for now). A real cynic might conclude that the operations center is basically a canard, a face-saving gift to Ankara to paper over what’s really happened—that Turkey told the US it was going to invade northeastern Syria, the US said “no, you’re not,” and Turkey backed down. The former scenario seems pretty likely, but I’m not sure about the latter.

At any rate, the situation remains that the two governments have formed a joint operations center to implement a safe zone that they apparently haven’t really even begun to define. And there’s no particular reason to expect that they’ll actually be able to agree on how to define it, particularly inasmuch as Turkey has been demanding a “safe zone” that would make just about everybody less safe:

Safe zones are generally established to protect people in conflict zones and are usually designed to be neutral, demilitarized, and focused on humanitarian purposes. Imposing a twenty-mile-deep safe zone east of the Euphrates would have the opposite effect—likely displacing more than 90 percent of the Syrian Kurdish population, exacerbating what is already an extremely challenging humanitarian situation, and creating an environment for increased conflict that would require an extended deployment of military forces. 

The proposed safe zone will hurt U.S. interests as well. The United States has been trying to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, protect those who fought it alongside the Global Coalition, and thwart Iranian efforts to use the area to propagate its sectarian activities and directly threaten others. The U.S.-backed Syrian Kurdish forces are the most effective fighting element in Syria against ISIS. Their presence promotes stability and the return of local governance, which is key to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, and their control of the area shuts down facilitation, movement, and resources that ISIS requires to achieve its objectives. Implementing a safe zone that would drive Kurdish forces out would likely disrupt those efforts.

There are ways to satisfy Turkey’s security concerns without opening the door to either a resurgence of ISIS or a Turkish-managed ethnic cleansing, involving joint patrols, the repositioning of heavy weaponry, etc. But that assumes that Turkey’s security concerns are legitimate and not just an excuse to displace a whole bunch of Kurds and extend Turkish control across the entire Syrian border.

YEMEN

The Houthis launched another drone strike on Abha Airport in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday, but according to the Saudis their drone “fell” while still in Yemeni airspace. Oh well, then.

IRAQ

The Iraqi interior ministry is reporting that some unknown party attacked a Popular Mobilization militia base southwest of Baghdad on Monday evening. One person may have been killed and several more wounded. The apparent strike bears strong similarities to two attacks on similar Iraqi facilities last month that most likely were undertaken by the Israeli air force, not that I’m suggesting anything by making that comparison.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

At LobeLog, Paul Pillar suggests that the UAE’s recent moves toward a more conciliatory policy vis-a-vis Iran should be a wake up call for the Trump administration:

The UAE’s recent posture, aimed at easing rather than exacerbating tensions with Iran, underscores how much the Trump administration’s posture toward Iran is an obsession rather than a strategy. The Emiratis do not, any more than other denizens of the Gulf, want a war in the area, which could have highly destructive effects on their own economic and security interests. What they have wanted instead is for Iran, as a regional rival, to stay weakened, isolated, and despised. For the U.S. to unquestioningly take sides in such regional rivalries is not in U.S. interests, although it is in the UAE’s interests. What is not in the UAE’s interests, as MbZ evidently realizes, is for the Emiratis to follow a U.S. path, staked out by a war-seeking John Bolton, that has a high chance of ending in armed conflict.

A major mistake of the Trump administration is to assume that Gulf states, just because they are rivals to varying degrees of Iran, should or must be as obsessive about the subject as the administration is. Gulf rulers such as MbZ cannot afford to let obsessions become centerpieces of their foreign policy. They live in the neighborhood, even if the United States does not.

SAUDI ARABIA

The family of imprisoned Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul says that she recently rejected an offer from Saudi authorities that would have meant her release from custody. Why? Because the deal would have required her to deny that she’s been tortured in prison. International human rights groups say that Hathloul and at least two other women have, among other things, been flogged, shocked, and sexually assaulted while in detention. Presumably there’s some truth to that, or else Hathloul would have been willing to deny it in exchange for her freedom.

ASIA

TURKMENISTAN

This year’s Caspian Economic Forum in Turkmenistan does not appear to have produced the same kind of breakthrough on divvying up the Caspian Sea’s resources that last year’s summit did. The 2018 forum resulted in a landmark agreement to demarcate the sea’s territorial waters and fishing rights. It did not, however, resolve issues about the sea bed, and that’s the bigger challenge. Not only are there believed to be considerable oil and gas resources under the Caspian, but its sea floor is the ideal place to run a pipeline that could, hypothetically, carry Central Asian gas through Azerbaijan and on to Western markets. Unsurprisingly, the two Caspian countries that are really dragging their feet about a regional agreement are Russia and Iran, which have the most to lose if such a pipeline were built.

KYRGYZSTAN

Former Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev, now in government custody after last week’s badly botched raid on his home, is facing some serious legal trouble. Previously only wanted for questioning in connection with a corruption case, Atambayev is now being charged with murder and “organizing mass unrest”—trying to organize a coup, more or less—in connection with the aforementioned botched raid. It’s a dubious claim, since the raid was the government’s operation and its failure (and the death of one of its special forces in the process) is really the government’s fault. Still, I suspect they’ll be able to make the accusation stick.

KASHMIR

People living in Kashmir on Tuesday struggled through their ninth straight day under an intensive Indian lockdown that has cut off their communications and prevented them from obtaining food and seeking medical treatment. But the news isn’t all bad: at least Narendra Modi, the guy responsible for this Kashmiri suffering, is getting to do cool stuff on TV:

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared on "Man vs. Wild," the British survivalist Bear Grylls' show, while his country continues to choke off Kashmir's access to food and the internet for the ninth consecutive day. 

On the episode, broadcast by Discovery Channel India on Monday night, Modi built makeshift rafts and discussed growing up in a poor family as he and Grylls crossed a river at the Jim Corbett National Park in northern India, The Guardian reported

While it's not clear how far in advance the episode was filmed, its Monday airing seems like an untimely publicity stunt as Modi's government continues to cut off Kashmir from the rest of the world.

Really, you think?

CHINA

Tuesday saw more protests and clashes between protesters and police at Hong Kong’s airport, where authorities eventually shut down operations for the second day in a row. Thousands of demonstrators erected barricades within the airport and at different times groups of them held two different men, accusing them of being agents for the mainland Chinese government. Both were eventually evacuated. Riot police responded with pepper spray, which if used in an enclosed space like an airport terminal could arguably violate international human rights law. Hong Kong police have been similarly using tear gas in enclosed spaces like metro terminals, where they serve no purpose other than to inflict pain on the people inside. The airport reopened on Wednesday morning, but whether it stays open is at this point difficult to predict.

The Trump administration is delaying until December 15 the imposition of certain tariffs on Chinese imports that were supposed to go into effect on September 1, citing “health, safety, national security and other factors.” Donald Trump himself later said the quiet part out loud and explained to reporters that the purpose was to give people a chance to do their Christmas shopping without incurring extra tariff-related costs. That’s odd, since Trump always insists that it’s China, not the US public, that pays the tariffs. Trump also seems to be expecting Beijing to reciprocate with a big purchase of US agricultural exports, though it’s unclear why.

AFRICA

LIBYA

The Eid truce observed by the “Libyan National Army” and Libya’s Government of National Accord ended pretty much the instant its two-day limit was reached. Fighting resumed overnight around Tripoli, with the LNA conducting airstrikes on southern Tripoli, though there have been no reports of civilian casualties as yet.

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

Both the former and current heads of US Africa Command, Thomas Waldhauser and  respectively, have been telling Congress that they’re concerned about “malign” Russian and Chinese activities in Africa, citing Russia’s expanding relationship with the Central African Republic in particular. But as The Intercept’s Nick Turse, notes, the notion that what Russia and China are doing in Africa is any more malicious than what the US is doing there is questionable at best, and certainly doesn’t seem to carry much weight across the continent:

IN RESPONSE TO perceived threats from its great power rivals, AFRICOM has launched a five-year campaign plan designed, in part, to counter the “increased presence” of China and Russia on the continent. The command is also strengthening alliances in order to “deter Chinese and Russian malign action,” Waldhauser wrote in March. In his written answers, Townsend also referenced “Russia’s malign influence in Africa” and took aim at China, noting that “[t]he Chinese have successfully promoted their false narrative that their assistance comes with no strings attached.”

While Waldhauser and Townsend painted Russian and Chinese motives as “malign” and America’s as virtuous, some experts take a different view. “It’s hard to make the case that any of the great powers truly have Africa’s best interest at heart. America’s behavior simply cannot be categorized as altruistic because its overly militarized post-9/11 foreign policy actually correlates to an increase of violence on the continent rather than deterrence,” Temi Ibirogba, a program and research associate with the Africa Program at the Center for International Policy, told The Intercept. “American officials like Nagy,” referring to the assistant secretary of state of African affairs, “and Waldhauser seem to have the false perception that American foreign policy is loved and welcomed by Africans, but it’s really the Chinese who are winning there at the moment.”

EUROPE

RUSSIA

The situation remains kind of alarming in northern Russia, where the fallout (pun partially intended) from last week’s missile test accident has yet to completely settle out. The latest twist in this story came on Tuesday, when residents of the village of Nyonoksa—close to the site of the explosion that apparently took place during a test involving a nuclear-powered Russian missile that’s clearly still in development—were ordered to evacuate, and then told them to return home a few hours later. Russian authorities say they were planning some sort of event for Wednesday, but canceled it. The event may have been another missile test, I guess, but whatever it was it definitely was a new and different thing and the evacuation had nothing to do with the fact that last week’s accident caused radiation levels in the vicinity to spike to 16 (or more) times normal background levels. Given that it was a short spike that probably still isn’t too bad, but it is considerably higher than the Russians had previously been willing to admit.

Regardless of last week’s apparent setback, the Russians want you to know that they are definitely winning the new arms race against the US. They felt compelled to defend their progress after Donald Trump remarked on Monday that the US has “similar, though more advanced, technology” as the missile the Russians were testing. For the record, there’s no evidence that the US is currently developing a nuclear-powered missile. It did play around with the technology decades ago but abandoned it as too dangerous and redundant when compared with long-range delivery systems like ICBMs. Improved missile defense technology—assuming you believe it really has improved—could render this technology less redundant (nuclear powered cruise missiles can, in theory, fly low enough to evade radar and therefore missile defense systems that might, again in theory, defeat an ICBM), but clearly no less dangerous.

UKRAINE

In a move that surely won’t antagonize anybody, the Ukrainian government is now offering citizenship to Russians who are facing “political persecution.” Kiev also accused a Russian consular worker in Lviv of spying and declared him persona non grata (he’d apparently already left the country). The Russians expelled a worker at Ukraine’s St. Petersburg consulate in response.

ITALY

The Italian Senate has told Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte that he must appear before parliament on August 20 to respond to the apparent fracturing of Italy’s governing coalition. It’s likely he’ll face a confidence vote at that time. League Party leader Matteo Salvini was pushing for a confidence vote on Wednesday, so presumably he’s not pleased about having to wait another week. The delay pushes the situation back closer to the point where a snap election would interfere with negotiations over next year’s budget, increasing the chances that Italian President Sergio Mattarella could try to install a “technocratic” caretaker government to work out the budget and delay an election until after that process is concluded.

Current (though maybe not for much longer) Italian PM Giuseppe Conte, right, with President Sergio Mattarella (Wikimedia Commons)

AMERICAS

COLOMBIA

Funding for one of the key components of then-Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’s 2016 peace deal with the FARC rebel group is about to lapse. The Espacios Territoriales de Capacitación y Reincorporación (ETCR) are camps where former FARC members have lived under government protection while working to build a legitimate existence as farmers and herders. They seem to have been pretty successful, but they’re probably going away, and maybe the rest of the deal along with them:

The current president, Iván Duque, has other ideas. Sworn in to succeed Santos in August 2018, Duque is a protégé of Santos’s predecessor, Álvaro Uribe, who has dedicated himself—from a position just off Duque’s right shoulder—to challenging the legality of the JEP [Jurisdicción Especial Para la Paz, the special court system set up in the peace deal to try war crimes cases] and the basic wisdom of the peace process. Although the peace plan was the result of a negotiation between the Colombian government and an armed group that was never defeated, Duque says that the deal gave the FARC too much, including amnesty and positions in Congress. At root, he and Uribe would like to see the ex-FARC disappear, like the smoke from un horno vietnamita.

On August 31, they might see their wish fulfilled. With the dissolution of the ETCRs, the protection that the army provides for the ex-combatants will also disappear. In addition to civilians seeking revenge, other guerrilla groups that have remained at war with the Colombian state, like the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) and the Ejército Popular de Liberación (EPL), are itching to recruit or eradicate the former FARC militants. Finally, many of the leaders of right-wing paramilitary groups dedicated to the destruction of the FARC have been released from prison after serving sentences following an earlier armistice. The United Nations estimated in 2008 that these paramilitary units have been responsible for 80 percent of the killings in Colombia since narco-traffickers began forming militias to fight the left-wing guerrillas in the 1970s—compared with 12 percent by the FARC and other left insurgents and 8 percent by the armed forces.

GUATEMALA

Guatemalan President-elect Alejandro Giammattei made it clear to the AP on Tuesday that he’s not planning to abide by the “safe third country” agreement current President Jimmy Morales negotiated with the Trump administration. Giammattei argued that Guatemala cannot realistically be certified as safe by an “international body,” so it cannot possibly be considered a safe destination for asylum seekers. He says he does plan to reduce migration to the US by improving Guatemala’s economy, though if he goes against Trump on the safe third country deal he’s risking US sanctions.

UNITED STATES

Finally, Voice of America Persian has never exactly been what you’d call an objective news source when it comes to covering Iran. But according to Jordan Michael Smith, it’s gotten considerably worse under the Trump administration:

For all its flaws, however, VOA Persian also upheld some journalistic standards and ran stories critical of the United States. It showcased positive aspects of the Obama administration’s engagement with Iran. Those qualities were, of course, why hawks despised the station: It didn’t act simply as a propaganda network for the right-wing view of Iran. Guests sometimes spoke of Iran as if it could play a constructive role in the region and didn’t always treat the Iranian government as something that needed to be overthrown.

And then Trump was elected.

Since then, the network has become, as Sajjadi puts it, “a mouthpiece of Trump — only Trump and nothing but Trump.” Manzarpour describes the situation as “blatant propaganda.” He said, “There is no objectivity or factuality.”

In particular, the network has apparently spent a lot of time fluffing the two most Western-friendly Iranian opposition in exile movements, the Mujahedin-e Khalq and the monarchist operation around Reza Pahlavi. One VOA Persian staffer suggested that the network “has been acting as media arm of MEK.” It’s also gone all-in on praising the Trump administration’s approach toward Iran. Which, if the goal is to present a pro-US spin on the news to an Iranian audience currently being battered by the Trump administration’s sanctions program, is probably not going to be terribly effective.