World update: August 22 2019

Stories from Iraq, Indonesia, Brazil, and more


August 21, 1415: Portuguese forces under King John I and his son Henrique, the future “Prince Henry the Navigator,” capture the city of Ceuta from the Moroccan Marinid dynasty. Ceuta was the first possession in what would become the Portuguese Empire and served as a staging ground for the Portuguese to capture several other cities around the northwest African coast. It’s a Spanish city today—Madrid kept it after the 16th-17th century Iberian Union broke apart.

August 21, 1791: The Haitian Revolution begins with a slave uprising. It ended in 1804 with Haitian independence.

An 1833 French illustration of the uprising, or the “massacre of the whites by the blacks” if you prefer (Wikimedia Commons)

August 22, 1864: An international convention held in Geneva produces a treaty governing the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers. That treaty would subsequently be amended and expanded four times and is the basis of the First Geneva Convention, which was adopted along with the other three Geneva Conventions in 1949.

August 22, 1910: Japan’s annexation of Korea is formalized by treaty. The Imperial Japanese government would occupy (and exploit) Korea until the end of World War II.



The Syrian military says it’s opened a “humanitarian corridor” to allow civilians trapped in southern Idlib and northern Hama provinces to escape the fighting there. With the military’s capture of the town of Khan Shaykhun, there’s a pocket of nominally rebel-held territory in that area that’s now pretty well surrounded. Civilians who do opt to get out of there will presumably be moved into government-held territory, where among other things the men could be subject to conscription.

A Turkish military observation post in northwestern Syria came under fire from the Syrian military on Thursday, but there were no reports of casualties. The government advance on Khan Shaykhun has put several of Turkey’s 12 outposts in the area in or close to the line of fire, and the Turks insist they’re not going to move or withdraw from any of them. They’re now beginning to sort of subtly accuse Russia of not fulfilling its obligation to rein in the Syrian military and protect Turkish forces in the area, while Moscow maintains that it was Turkey’s failure to meet its obligations to disarm Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and reopen Syria’s M4 and M5 highways that has led to this situation. The concern now for Turkey is minimizing the displacement and avoiding another wave of Syrian refugees, though there may not be much they can do in that regard given that Russia is involved.


Southern Transitional Council and government forces reportedly battled in Shabwa province on Thursday. The separatists control Aden and part of Abyan province, and appear to be inexorably making their way across the Gulf of Aden coast.


Three Turkish soldiers were killed on Thursday in a clash with Kurdistan Workers’ Party fighters in Şırnak province. Turkish authorities say that at least three PKK fighters were also killed in what may have been an attack on a Turkish Petroleum facility where the soldiers were providing security.

The Pentagon says the window for Turkey to change its mind about buying Russia’s S-400 air defense system and purchase a U.S.-made Patriot system has closed. Please adjust your Raytheon stock holdings accordingly.


Without explicitly saying so, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday effectively acknowledged that his air force has been behind the series of recent attacks on Popular Mobilization militia facilities in Iraq. Which is interesting, because the head of the Popular Mobilization Forces umbrella group, Faleh Alfayyadh, on Thursday toned down a statement his deputy, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, had made on Wednesday blaming Israeli drones for attacking those sites with US approval. Alfayyadh would only allow that the attacks have been “organized by a foreign side.” The difference in their statements may highlight some inconsistencies within the PMF. Muhandis is considerably more anti-US than Alfayyadh, and as the leader of Kataʾib Hezbollah, one of the strongest Iraqi militias, he probably has more actual power than Alfayyadh even though Alfayyadh is his boss.


The Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian highlights the toll US sanctions are taking on the Iranian people the Trump administration pretends to support so much:

Evidence is mounting that the Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran are having a devastating effect on the most vulnerable members of Iranian society.

The stated goal of the current sanctions campaign is to change the regime’s behavior. If President Trump’s Iran advisers aim to achieve this without causing unnecessary harm to innocents, they have a moral responsibility to make immediate adjustments that would allow easier access to lifesaving medicines and medical equipment.

There are ways to do just that, which previous administrations took advantage of to address the humanitarian catastrophe. The Trump team, meanwhile, claims there are no limitations on the importation of medical supplies to Iran. But recent reports from Iran tell a very different story.



The release of excess water at India’s Sutlej River dam is flooding farmland downstream in Pakistan, which isn’t helping the already inflamed tensions between the two countries:


As expected, the second attempt to repatriate Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh to Myanmar has collapsed because none of the refugees are willing to return. It is within the Myanmar government’s power to provide assurances that the refugees will not be harmed should they return, by giving them citizenship and allowing them to return to the homes from which the Myanmar military drove them back in 2016 and 2017. The fact that Myanmar officials won’t do that makes it pretty clear that any refugees who do return are taking their lives into their hands in doing so.


Indonesian authorities have reportedly arrested 34 people in connection with protests across West Papua and Papua provinces, but of more concern is the fact that they’ve cut internet access to Papua province. That sort of thing often portends an effort to coverup a crackdown. The government has moved 1200 extra police officers into the region, which also suggests things may be about to go sideways. There was a small protest in favor of Papuan independence in Jakarta on Thursday, but for the most part the demonstrations in Papua and West Papua seem to be focused on issues like discrimination and inequality.

The Indonesian government has selected East Kalimantan province, on Borneo island, as the site of the country’s new capital. President Joko Widodo has announced plans to move the capital from Jakarta due to overcrowding and the fact that the city, having drained its underground aquifers, is sinking.


Chinese state media responded on Friday to claims from the US that Chinese fentanyl is to blame for the US opioid epidemic:

The United States was “pushing responsibility” for fentanyl abuse to China and ignoring that Beijing had implemented strict controls on the highly addictive synthetic opioid, reported The People’s Daily newspaper, published by the ruling Communist Party.

U.S. officials say China is the main source of illicit fentanyl and fentanyl-related substances that are trafficked into the United States, much of it through international mail. Beijing denies that most of the illicit fentanyl entering the United States originates in China.

“Some people in the United States need to understand, the source of the illness lies within one’s body,” the newspaper said in an article which bore the pen name “Zhong Sheng”, usually used to express its views on foreign policy.


The South Korean government announced on Thursday that it is withdrawing from an intelligence-sharing arrangement with Japan, which prompted the Japanese government to summon the South Korean ambassador in Tokyo to protest. This is the latest escalation in the two countries’ long-running dispute over World War II reparations and it follows Japan’s decision to drop South Korean from its favored trade status earlier this month. This hostility, which past US administration have generally managed to contain, is impacting regional diplomacy on North Korea and wreaking havoc with US efforts to assemble an Indo-Pacific coalition to contain China.



The Jubbaland regional parliament reelected regional president Ahmed Mohamed Madobe, after blocking access to the regional capital, Kismayo, all week to prevent any attempt from Mogadishu to engineer a different result. Madobe is more popular in Kenya than he is with Somalia’s federal government, which rejected the vote as “unconstitutional.” A group of opposition figures got together and elected their own regional president, Abdirashid Mohamed Hidig. For what it’s worth, the Somali government rejected that vote too. Jubbaland is important because it’s a major agricultural region, because it’s believed there are oil and gas deposits offshore whose ownership will be disputed by Somalia and Kenya, and because it’s home to a significant al-Shabab presence, which is a security concern for both countries.

Meanwhile, Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmaajo on Thursday overhauled the leadership of his security organizations and appointed a new mayor for Mogadishu, Omar Mohamud Mohamed. The old mayor, Abdirahman Omar Osman, was badly wounded in an al-Shabab assassination attempt last month and later died of his wounds.



Kosovo’s parliament voted to dissolve itself on Thursday so as to permit a new election, which must happen within 45 days. Former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj resigned last month under investigation on war crimes charges for his actions while in the Kosovo Liberation Army in the 1990s, necessitating a new parliamentary election. Polling suggests the outcome is likely to be inconclusive.


Italian President Sergio Mattarella on Thursday gave the leaders of Italy’s political parties until Tuesday to work out a new coalition agreement. That’s a bit longer than it was believed he would allow but still not very long. If Italy is to avoid an early election the likeliest alternative remains a coalition between the Democratic Party and the Five Star Movement, though the Democrats have set out some pretty hefty demands in early negotiations so it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to work something out. League Party leader Matteo Salvini, the man whose decision to withdraw from his coalition with Five Star and force an election brought Italy to this point, now says he’d be willing to reform that coalition under more favorable terms. Clearly he’s worried about the possibility that Five Star and the Democrats could reach a deal and leave him in the opposition.



In a lengthy read at The Intercept, journalist Alexander Zaitchik delves into the scope of the destruction happening right now in the Amazon rain forest, as well as the likely impact on the planet if it continues:

In the last half-century, about one-fifth of this forest, or some 300,000 square miles, has been cut and burned in Brazil, whose borders contain almost two-thirds of the Amazon basin. This is an area larger than Texas, the U.S. state that Brazil’s denuded lands most resemble, with their post-forest landscapes of silent sunbaked pasture, bean fields, and evangelical churches. This epochal deforestation — matched by harder to quantify but similar levels of forest degradation and fragmentation — has caused measurable disruptions to regional climates and rainfall. It has set loose so much stored carbon that it has negated the forest’s benefit as a carbon sink, the world’s largest after the oceans. Scientists warn that losing another fifth of Brazil’s rainforest will trigger the feedback loop known as dieback, in which the forest begins to dry out and burn in a cascading system collapse, beyond the reach of any subsequent human intervention or regret. This would release a doomsday bomb of stored carbon, disappear the cloud vapor that consumes the sun’s radiation before it can be absorbed as heat, and shrivel the rivers in the basin and in the sky.

The catastrophic loss of another fifth of Brazil’s rainforest could happen within one generation. It’s happened before. It’s happening now.

This Washington Post photo essay will also get the point across. So might this:

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, put in office by the large agribusiness concerns that are responsible for this destruction, has walked back his wild accusation that international NGOs have been torching the forest in an effort to make him look bad, but says his government can’t do anything about the fires so he’d appreciate it if everybody would get off his back about it.


Finally, at The New Republic, Ankit Panda looks at some of the less-appealing potential consequences of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty:

Even if INF opponents had a clear vision for how to deploy new missiles in Asia, those deployments might create bigger strategic headaches for the United States. For instance, the U.S., whether it likes it or not, is in a nuclear deterrence relationship with North Korea. Pyongyang has long bristled at American bomber flights from Guam, which could retaliate against a North Korean nuclear strike within several hours. But one of the American post-INF missiles reportedly under development—a ballistic missile with a range of between 1,800 and 2,500 miles—could, if deployed to Guam, prompt a serious North Korean response. The flight time of such a missile to Pyongyang would be under 20 minutes; deploying a missile that might take out Kim Jong Un in his sleep will encourage North Korea to take dangerous steps itself. Kim might choose to implement a “fail deadly” mechanism, loosening the conditions under which his nuclear arsenal might be used. Even if the United States focuses its new INF deployments in Asia on challenges to China, we’d have to consider the implications for the uneasy relationship with North Korea.

It’s not just the United States that has to deal with the range of consequences of this treaty’s collapse. One of the most-forgotten features of the INF is it was never entirely bilateral after the fall of the USSR: It also covered a handful of former Soviet states that once had their territories involved in the production or testing of intermediate-range missiles. Among these is Ukraine, a country with a particularly strong domestic industrial base for the production of rockets. Though it would take several years in practice, Kyiv has said it reserves the right to develop its own post-INF missiles “as necessary.” Given the seemingly interminable hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, Moscow might find itself with a new regional headache in a matter of years, as it stares down both American conventional intermediate missiles in Europe and similar systems in Ukraine.