World update: August 17-18 2019

Stories from the United Arab Emirates, India, Sudan, and more

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August 16, 1972: A rogue element within the Moroccan military attempts a coup against King Hassan II by attacking his airplane. The midair assassination attempt killed eight people but was thwarted by the king himself, who jumped on the radio and shouted “The tyrant is dead,” thereby causing the attacking aircraft to break off. Mohamed Oufkir, Moroccan defense minister and the ringleader of the coup plot, was later found dead with multiple gunshot wounds to the chest. Moroccan authorities deemed it a suicide.

August 17, 1717: Prince Eugene of Savoy’s Habsburg army successfully concludes its month-long siege of Belgrade. The Habsburgs eventually gave the city back to the Ottomans in the 1739 Treaty of Belgrade.

August 17, 1945: Indonesian Independence Day

August 18, 684 (or thereabouts): The Battle of Marj Rahit



A car bomb in the city of Qamishli killed at least one member of the Kurdish Asayish police force on Sunday. Islamic State claimed responsibility.

Meanwhile, both Syrian state media and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights are reporting that the Syrian army has advanced to the “outskirts” of the crucial southern Idlib town of Khan Shaykhun. The town sits right on the Aleppo-Damascus M5 highway, making it a valuable target for the Syrian government, and its capture will enable pro-government forces to encircle the remaining rebel positions in Hama province. The Observatory claims that at least 45 rebel and 17 pro-government fighters were killed in fighting around Khan Shaykhun over the weekend.


The Southern Transitional Council withdrew its forces from several government buildings in Aden over the weekend, as Saudi Arabia and the UAE attempted to restore some order to the fractured pro-government coalition. They have not, however, given up control of the military positions they’ve seized and say they will not do so unless/until members of the Islamist Islah Party and “northerners” are purged from all government positions.

A new United Nations investigation has found pretty conclusive evidence that British-made weapons sold to Saudi Arabia have been used against civilian targets in Yemen. Specifically they found wreckage from a British “high explosive” bomb at a facility that was bombed in Sanaa in 2016. UK arms sales to the Saudis are currently suspended under a court order issued in June that found the government has not done enough to ensure that those weapons weren’t being used to kill Yemeni civilians.


The Jordanian government has summoned the Israeli ambassador in Amman to protest “clear violations” at the al-Aqsa/Temple Mount complex in East Jerusalem. Jordan is responsible for administering the site, where Israeli police clashed with Palestinians last week over concerns—later proven accurate—that police would open the site to Jewish visitors during the Eid al-Adha observance. It’s that clash that prompted the Jordanian complaint.

Jews are prohibited from worshiping at the al-Aqsa site, and it’s sort of typical of the Israel-Palestine dynamic that there’s usually more handwringing about that issue than about, say, the two million Palestinians that Israel is keeping in an open-air prison in Gaza, or the fact that the metastasis of illegal Israeli settlements continues to force Palestinians off of West Bank land. There is a legitimate argument that Jews should be allowed to worship there, as long as they’re not harming anybody else in doing so. But as was the case with the question of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it is grotesque to demand that Palestinians concede on this issue while the Israeli government is never obliged to concede on even a tiny bit of its apartheid agenda. It’s like ordering a pizza with your friend, eating 11 of its 12 slices, and then calling your friend a jerk for not sharing the 12th slice with you.


The Israeli military shot and killed three Palestinian men overnight for attempting to leave the Gaza prison camp. At least one of the men appears to have been armed. Earlier on Saturday, somebody fired three rockets out of Gaza, two of which were intercepted by Israeli air defenses. There were no reports of any injuries.

Former Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s decisions to withdraw from Benjamin Netanyahu’s government in November, thereby forcing a new election, and then to hold out on joining Netanyahu’s coalition after April’s snap election, thereby forcing another snap election to be held next month, seem to be paying off. Liberman is pitching himself and his Yisrael Beiteinu party this time around not as the far right nationalists they are, but as secularists opposing the ultra-Orthodox parties that have played an increasingly large role in setting Israeli policy under Netanyahu’s successive governments.

That’s a message that seems (according to polling) to be broadening his appeal beyond the rabidly anti-Palestinian fringe that’s always been his base, and could put him in a position to demand major goodies from either Netanyahu or the center-left opposition after the September election. There’s even an outside chance Liberman could position himself to become prime minister, which would have been unthinkable just a few months ago and is still sort of unspeakable—though, really, he can’t be any worse than Netanyahu. In fact there’s some reason to think he might be better, since unlike the ultra-Orthodox parties on which Netanyahu has come to depend, he doesn’t subscribe (at least overtly) to any religious arguments for ethnically cleansing the West Bank.


So this is a little weird:

What’s weird is that nobody outside the inner circles of Kuwaiti politics actually knew anything was wrong. Now, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah is 90, so even a cold could mean it’s time for thoughts and prayers, but Zarif’s tweet definitely buried the lead, so to speak. Not long after, maybe forced by the tweet, the Kuwaiti government issued a statement saying that the emir is fine following some still unknown “setback.”


The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday that the UAE is involved in “secret talks” (whoops!) with Israel and the US about Iran. The three countries apparently got together during that February anti-Iran event that the Trump administration held in Poland and have held two sessions since. That these meetings are happening is less interesting to me than questions about who leaked them and why. Did the Emiratis leak the information to publicly demonstrate their commitment to the administration’s Iran pressure policy, despite their withdrawal from Yemen and recent diplomatic interactions with Tehran? This seems unlikely to me. Did somebody else leak the information to embarrass the Emiratis and derail those diplomatic interactions with Tehran? This seems much more likely to me. Or is there something else going on here?


The Houthis launched a multiple drone strike on the Shaybah oil field in eastern Saudi Arabia on Saturday. It’s one of the Houthis’ most ambitious drone attacks to date, over 600 miles from their Yemeni territory. Saudi officials say the strike caused a “limited fire” at the field’s natural gas liquids facility, but otherwise did not impact operations.


Authorities in Gibraltar have decided to release the Iranian oil tanker Grace 1, now apparently rechristened the Adrian Darya-1, despite the warrant issued by a US federal court on Friday ordering that the ship be held on account of Vile Iranian Misdeeds or the like. It would appear that somebody in Gibraltar managed to figure out that US law isn’t actually binding on European nations. This seems obvious but is in fact something of a legal breakthrough as far as I can tell. As of Sunday night the ship’s GPS reportedly indicated that it was leaving Gibraltar.

Satellite photos show activity at Iran’s Imam Khomeini Space Center, suggesting that Tehran is going to try for the third time this year to put a satellite in orbit. The first two attempts were busts and this one—assuming there is one—could easily be one as well. The US opposes any Iranian space activity and argues that its entire space program is just a thin cover for its ballistic missile program. That’s probably not true—there is some overlap between missile technology and space launch technology, but the connection is usually overstated.



Islamic State on Sunday claimed responsibility for a Saturday night suicide bombing that targeted a wedding celebration in Kabul. The attack killed at least 63 people and wounded more than 180, most of them members of Afghanistan’s minority Shiʿa Hazara community. The Hazara are a frequent IS target. Although they were not involved, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani took the opportunity to lash out at the Taliban, arguing that they deserve blame because “they provide a platform for terrorists.”

UPDATE: As of Wednesday, the death toll has risen to 80 and may rise still further.


At least five people were killed Sunday in a bombing in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that was later claimed by the Pakistani Taliban. The target appears to have been a “pro-government tribal elder,” in the AP’s words. On Saturday, two Pakistani police officers were killed by a roadside bomb in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s South Waziristan region. The Pakistani Taliban was also presumably behind this attack though it didn’t immediately claim it.


As quickly as it started to ease some of its clampdown in Kashmir’s largest city, Srinagar, the Indian government put most of its restrictions back in place on Sunday. The move came after clashes between protesters and police on Saturday and overnight that left dozens injured. Authorities restored roadblocks and a curfew over much of the city, and appear to be slowing plans to restore communications throughout Jammu and Kashmir. Thousands of people have been arrested since the Indian government moved to strip Kashmir of its constitutional autonomy earlier this month. The move prompted the Pakistani government to cut off commerce with India, which has reportedly left many people on either side of Kashmir’s line of control struggling to obtain food:


If you’re wondering why India’s right-wing Hindu nationalist government has stripped mostly Muslim Kashmir of its autonomy, you might want to look to the east, at what it’s currently doing to millions of mostly Muslim people in Assam state:

The hunt for migrants is unfolding in Assam, a poor, hilly state near the borders with Myanmar and Bangladesh. Many of the people whose citizenship is now being questioned were born in India and have enjoyed all the rights of citizens, such as voting in elections.

State authorities are rapidly expanding foreigner tribunals and planning to build huge new detention camps. Hundreds of people have been arrested on suspicion of being a foreign migrant — including a Muslim veteran of the Indian Army. Local activists and lawyers say the pain of being left off a preliminary list of citizens and the prospect of being thrown into jail have driven dozens to suicide.

But the governing party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not backing down.

The dragnet is ostensibly meant to find undocumented Bangladeshi migrants, whom Indian Home Minister Amit Shah has charmingly called “termites.” But in practice what seems to be happening is that the government is declaring Assam’s Bengali Muslims to be Bangladeshi regardless of whether or not they’re actually from Bangladesh. Assam’s residents are obliged to prove—apparently they’re guilty until proven innocent in this case—that their families were in India prior to 1971, when Bangladesh came into existence. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party are reportedly working on legislation that would exempt any non-Muslims in Assam from that obligation.

This is the project that’s rolling out in Kashmir now and is likely coming to any part of India with a significant Muslim population soon enough. And once they’ve purged the country of Muslims they’ll have to pick another minority to demonize.


The Barisan Revolusi Nasional, the largest militant group in southern Thailand, reportedly met with representatives of the Thai government on Friday to discuss terms for peace talks. There’s been a low-level insurgency in predominantly Malay southern Thailand since the 1940s but it picked up in 2001 and really kicked into another gear in 2004. Over 6700 people have been killed due to the conflict since then. It’s much too soon to say whether they’ll be able to make any substantive progress.


Hundreds of thousands of people turned out for a massive anti-government protest in Hong Kong on Sunday, despite a steady rain. The turnout, which organizers estimated to be a whopping 1.7 million but police put considerably lower, clearly showed that the violent outburst at the city’s airport a few days ago has not blunted the movement’s momentum. The march was peaceful, deliberately so in order to expunge the memory of the airport fiasco. Organizers claimed that almost 500,000 turned out the day before (again the police estimate was much lower), also in heavy rain, for a pro-government demonstration. They were countered by several thousand anti-government protesters



A new study from Australia’s United States Studies Center is advising Canberra to diversify its alliance network, arguing that the US military presence in the Indo-Pacific region ain’t what she used to be:

“Faced with an increasingly contested regional security landscape and with limited defence resources at its disposal, the United States military is no longer assured of its ability to single-handedly uphold a favourable balance of power in the Indo-Pacific,” the report, by the US Studies Centre’s Ashley Townshend and Brendan Thomas-Noone, says.

“China, by contrast, is growing ever more capable of challenging the regional order by force as a result of its large-scale investment in advanced military systems.”

The report contends that the US can’t focus on the Indo-Pacific because of its “global responsibilities,” which is a strained way of saying that Washington has broken its military fighting a non-stop war of choice on multiple fronts for 18 straight years, and won’t be putting it back together again anytime soon. It concludes that Australia needs to improve its ties with regional powers like Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, and Malaysia.



Sudan took a major step in its transition to a civilian government on Saturday when leaders of both the military junta and the civilian opposition signed a power sharing accord under which they’ll jointly govern the country until an election in 2022. The country’s new “sovereign council” will be composed half of junta members and half of civilian leaders and will oversee a civilian cabinet. It will be led for the first 21 months of the agreement by junta boss Abdel Fattah al-Burhan before presumably switching to civilian leadership. The military will also reportedly control both the defense and interior ministries, which means altogether that it will continue to wield a considerable amount of authority.


The “Libyan National Army” has “seriously damaged” the airport in the western Libyan city of Zuwara after multiple airstrikes last week. The UN mission in Libya condemned the strikes and said there are no military facilities at that airport, making the strikes unjustifiable. The LNA has also been carrying out strikes against Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport and the airport in Misrata, both of which do have some military usage.


Chadian President Idriss Déby has declared a state of emergency in the eastern provinces of Sila and Ouaddai, where inter-communal violence between farming and herding peoples has killed at least 50 people in just the past ten days.



A research group based in London has compiled evidence of direct Russian involvement in the Ukrainian civil war. The group, called Forensic Architecture, says it has video of Russian T-72B3 tanks being used during the Battle of Ilovaisk in August 2014, when only the Russian military is believed to have been using that model.


Are we still talking about the US buying Greenland? Seriously? It’s not happening.


With his plans to force a new election being held up in parliament, League Party boss Matteo Salvini has indicated he would be open to renegotiating his party’s coalition agreement with the Five Star Movement. But Five Star doesn’t seem interested. Party leaders met on Sunday and reportedly came to the conclusion that Salvini is “no longer a credible interlocutor” and that their partnership with the League is over.



The AP is reporting that US officials have been secretly (whoops!) negotiating with Diosdado Cabello, head of the country’s powerful Constituent Assembly and most powerful man in Venezuela apart from President Nicolás Maduro. It would appear he’s trying to figure out what he and other Maduro government insiders stand to gain by betraying their boss on Donald Trump’s behalf (the US has offered sanctions relief and legal immunity to any Maduro loyalists who turn on him), though it’s possible that he’s been engaging with the US with Maduro’s knowledge. Maduro himself allegedly floated the idea of a new presidential election recently in talks with the Venezuelan opposition, though it’s unclear whether he’s serious and under what terms he would agree to hold a vote.


Colombia’s Transandino oil pipeline was damaged over the weekend with the installation of two valves, meant to enable bootlegging, and a bombing in Nariño province. It’s not clear who carried out the bombing, but ELN rebels do frequently attack oil infrastructure.


Finally, Islamist terrorist groups have long been after radioactive material that they could use to build a “dirty bomb,” and apparently they’re not the only ones:

The budding nationalist white supremacist terrorist movement in the United States is no different. Consider the case of the “All-American Nazis.” Four neo-Nazi roommates lived together until one of them converted to Islam and shot two others for disrespecting his religion. The double homicide shed light on an organization called Atomwaffen (German for “nuclear weapons”). Devon Arthurs, the convert to Islam, described Atomwaffen as a terrorist group that had 60-70 members nationwide and planned bombing attacks on synagogues and nuclear plants. Brandon Russell, the roommate who wasn’t home at the time of the argument, had been collecting thorium since the 10th grade. These are not isolated incidents; in 2004 and 2013, the FBI arrested two white supremacists interested in acquiring and detonating a dirty bomb.

Moreover, these are not “lone wolves.” They are part of an extremist network bound by white supremacist ideology, far-right hate, and online indoctrination. And there is no shortage of evidence that they want to acquire their own radioactive weapons.