World update: August 24-25 2019

Stories from Iraq, China, France, and more

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It’s G7 weekend, this year in the French resort town of Biarritz. We’ll be sprinkling in G7 news throughout this update.

The G7 gang, plus one—clockwise: US President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, European Council President Donald Tusk, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō (Wikimedia Commons)

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

August 23, 1244: An army of displaced Khwarazmian fighters, invited by the Ayyubid Sultanate, accepts the Jerusalem garrison’s surrender after a several-week siege. The Khwarazmians proceeded to ruthlessly sack the city, which had nominally been brought back under Christian control by Emperor Frederick II during the Sixth Crusade, and massacre its population without regard for religion.

August 23, 1514: The Battle of Chaldiran

August 23, 1595: An outnumbered Wallachian army under Prince Michael “the Brave” defeats an Ottoman army under Grand Vizier Koca Sinan Pasha at the Battle of Călugăreni, today located in southern Romania. Michael had to retreat afterward due to the Ottomans’ decisive advantage in numbers, but the victory is an important one in Romanian national history. Part of the 1593-1606 Long War between the Ottomans and Habsburgs, which ended with neither side having achieved much but did stabilize the Ottoman-Habsburg frontier for several decades.

August 24, 410: A Visigothic army under Alaric sacks Rome. This was the first time the city had been sacked by a foreign army since the Gauls did so around 800 years earlier and is considered one of the milestones in the collapse of the empire in the west.

August 24, 1516: The Battle of Marj Dabiq

August 24, 1814: The British army captures Washington DC and proceeds to burn down the White House, the Capitol, and several other government buildings. The fires were eventually put out by a heavy storm that may have been a hurricane. British forces only occupied the city for a little over a day, leading to condemnation in the US and across Europe over what seemed to be little more than an act of vandalism. The city was rebuilt after the war, which must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

August 25, 1270: King Louis IX of France, the future St. Louis, dies of dysentery before the walls of Tunis during the impossibly stupid Eighth Crusade. The Crusade continued until the end of October, when Charles of Anjou, Louis’ brother, negotiated a trade agreement with the Hafsid sultan of Tunisia.

August 25, 1580: An army under the Duke of Alba, Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, and fighting on behalf of King Philip II of Spain, defeats an army under António, Prior of Crato at the Battle of Alcântara, part of the War of Portuguese Succession. Both António and Philip were claimants to the then-vacant throne of Portugal, and this victory allowed Philip’s army to capture Lisbon and eventually led to Philip’s crowning as King of Portugal in March 1581. The crowns of Portugal and Spain were held in personal union (the “Iberian Union”) until the 1640-1668 Portuguese Restoration War.

August 25, 1944: The Nazi garrison occupying Paris surrenders the city to the Allies.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

A car bomb in Idlib city on Saturday killed at least two people and wounded 11 more. It’s unclear who was responsible. The city’s suburbs also reportedly came under government and Russian airstrikes, a relative rarity despite all the fighting that’s been going on in southern Idlib province of late. Later Saturday, the Israelis attacked Iranian and Iranian-aligned forces outside of Damascus, whom they claimed were preparing to launch drone strikes against northern Israel. In another rarity, the Israeli government openly acknowledged the strikes and said the purpose, apart from averting the drone attacks, was to warn the Iranians that Israel can strike their forces at any time. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that the strikes killed two Hezbollah members and one Iranian.

The Turkish government says its joint (with the US) operations center to oversee a northeastern Syrian “safe zone” is “working at full capacity.” Now if only they had an actual safe zone. For now it seems the operations center will be flying drones over the area to watch for any sign of trouble between Turkish and Kurdish forces.

YEMEN

Southern Transitional Council forces continued to give ground in Shabwah province over the weekend. After Yemeni government forces took control of the provincial capital of Ataq on Friday, they managed to push the STC out of several encampments and one headquarters west of the city on Saturday, while another group of STC fighters was attacked in the town of Mahfad, in neighboring Abyan province. That attack was most likely carried out by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and I don’t want to accuse the Yemeni government of outright allying with AQAP, but it sure is interesting that as the STC fight has expanded into Abyan and Shabwah, two provinces with a significant AQAP presence, the government’s forces have started to look much more capable. And then AQAP just happens to attack the STC in Mahfad. Probably a coincidence.

Fighting between the government and STC forces was reportedly continuing outside of Ataq on Sunday, with at least 9 killed. But fear not—Saudi Arabia and the UAE are forming a “joint committee” to try to “stabilize” the situation in Shabwah and Abyan provinces. By golly, if they can’t do it…well, let’s just hope they can do it.

TURKEY

Five Turkish generals have reportedly handed in their resignations in the wake of a Supreme Military Council meeting earlier this month. Sources are suggesting there was a move in the council to downsize the Turkish army, which led to these resignations apparently in protest.

IRAQ

Where to begin. A motorcycle bomb killed three people and wounded 34 more at a Shiʿa mosque in a village south of Baghdad on Friday evening. Islamic State claimed responsibility. On Saturday night, rockets struck a football stadium in a predominantly Turkmen area in the town of Daquq, in Kirkuk province, killing six people. IS was probably responsible here as well though it hasn’t said so, and some local politicians are suggesting there may have been a “political” angle to the attack. And on Sunday the Turkish military said that three of its soldiers had been killed and seven wounded in fighting with Kurdistan Workers’ Party militants in northern Iraq. It’s unclear whether they were killed on Sunday or just in recent operations.

Also on Sunday there appears to have been another in the series of probably Israeli drone strikes against Iraqi Popular Mobilization militias. At least two militia fighters were killed in two strikes on a facility in Anbar province near Iraq’s border with Syria.

NBC News is reporting that last year the Trump administration only approved visas for two Iraqis who previously worked as interpreters for the US military. The US government has been consistently horrible about accommodating the tens of thousands of Iraqis who worked with and for its occupation forces and who therefore face literal threats on their lives in Iraq, but the Trump administration has taken that to a new low (three guesses why). The US has long been horrible about admitting refugees in general, but there too the Trump administration is breaking new ground in vileness.

LEBANON

Two Israeli drones landed on southern Beirut on Sunday morning, one whole when it crashed and the other in pieces after it exploded near the ground. There were no reports of casualties but a Hezbollah media center was damaged in the explosion. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Sunday called the attack “very, very, very dangerous” and suggested his group could retaliate against Israel. Even Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri—not exactly a Hezbollah supporter—criticized the strike as “a threat to regional stability.”

Lebanese media is reporting that Israeli airstrikes (it’s been quite a busy few days for the Israeli military) hit a “military position” of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command near the Syrian border early Monday morning. The strike was carried out with drones and caused only material damage, according to the group.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli military says that three “projectiles” were fired out of Gaza on Sunday evening. There are no reports of any casualties but you can expect an Israeli retaliation presumably overnight.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Houthis launched a drone strike against Saudi Arabia’s Abha airport and the kingdom’s airbase at Khamis Mushait on Sunday. The Saudis say they shot down a drone headed for the airbase and there’s no report of any attack at the airport. They also claim to have caused “dozens” of casualties in a missile attack on Jizan airport, but the Saudis claim their air defenses intercepted the missiles. There is a discrepancy in the number of missiles the Saudis claim to have shot down, six, and the number the Houthis claim to have fired, ten, but I haven’t seen any confirmation of casualties at the airport.

IRAN

French President Emmanuel Macron said at the G7 summit in Biarritz on Sunday that leaders had agreed on “joint action” to reduce tensions and reopen negotiations with Iran. Donald Trump then denied that there was any such agreement, and Macron subsequently had to walk his claims back. The summit was then rocked by the arrival of none other than Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, It’s unclear why Zarif showed up but it clearly wasn’t for a surprise meeting with Trump, as White House aides said they were “surprised” by his appearance (the French government says it informed all the G7 delegations of Zarif’s arrival “as soon as possible”). He did apparently meet with Macron, so perhaps it was a post-G7 debriefing of some sort.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Hossein Salami told Iranian media on Saturday that the IRGC has tested a new missile of some kind. The Iranians recently unveiled what they say is a new surface-to-air missile but whether that’s what they tested is anybody’s guess. An Iranian diplomat told Reuters on Sunday that Tehran is still not going to negotiate over its missile program, though it would like some relief on oil sanctions. And on Saturday, the Iranian Foreign Ministry imposed “sanctions” on the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the DC think tank that’s been pushing the Trump administration’s pressure campaign against Iran. This move appears to include an actual threat against the think tank, since the accompanying statement notes that “any actions” that Iranian “security apparatuses” take against it and its “accomplices” would be “considered legitimate.” That’s probably bluster but it’s still condemnable, not to mention self-defeating from an Iranian perspective.

ASIA

PAKISTAN

A Pakistani Taliban faction claimed responsibility for an attack around midnight on Friday on a security outpost in the South Waziristan region. Two workers at a nearby gas station were killed.

BANGLADESH

An estimated 100,000 or more Rohingya refugees protested in their camps in eastern Bangladesh on Sunday to mark the two year anniversary of start of the Myanmar military’s ethnic cleansing operation in Rakhine state, the one that drove them into Bangladesh. The demonstrators are angry with both the Myanmar government, for obvious reasons, and with the Bangladeshi government, which seems increasingly intent on forcing them back into Myanmar despite the fact that they’ll likely face more genocidal violence if they return. Bangladeshi police killed two Rohingya in the camps on Saturday after alleged that they’d been involved in the murder of an official with the country’s ruling Grand Alliance coalition. Bangladeshi authorities have also promised to get “tougher” on the Rohingya after the refugees’ refusal to go back to Myanmar scuttled an attempted repatriation earlier in the week. So that sounds nice.

INDONESIA

Al Jazeera is reporting that protesters are being injured and arrested in West Papua province, though Indonesian police are denying it. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are also apparently getting reports of injuries and have called on the Indonesian government to protect the rights of demonstrators. Jakarta’s decision to leave the internet turned off in West Papua isn’t inspiring a lot of confidence in terms of its commitment to transparency and human rights.

CHINA

Hong Kong protests turned violent over the weekend. Police used tear gas and batons to try to subdue thousands of demonstrators in an industrial area on Saturday, while the protesters responded with slingshots, stones, and other projectile weapons. On Sunday, the situation escalated again, to perhaps the most violent level it’s reached since the protests began, as police brought out water cannons to suppress crowds numbering in the tens of thousands, while some protesters reportedly threw gasoline bombs at the cops. At least 36 people were arrested and the Hong Kong government accused the protesters of “push[ing] Hong Kong to the verge of a very dangerous situation.” Several police reportedly drew their weapons and at least one fired in the air, though it’s not clear whether or not he was using live ammunition:

Meanwhile, Donald Trump is claiming he could invoke the International Emergency Economic Powers Act of 1977 to force companies to stop doing business with China. The IEEPA is supposed to give the president extraordinary powers to regulate commerce in case of an acute national emergency. At the time it actually represented a restraining of presidential power, though there’s no evidence that it worked. I’m not entirely sure that “I got made about tariffs and tweeted something dumb” actually counts as a national emergency, but on the other hand I guess you could argue that Donald Trump’s presidency in itself constitutes a kind of national emergency. Anyway, it will be fun watching all the free market extremists in the Republican Party fall meekly in line if Trump takes this action.

NORTH KOREA

The North Korean government is claiming that Saturday morning’s weapons test involved a “super-large multiple rocket launcher.” The test was North Korea’s seventh in a month and was broadly similar to the other six, which have all involved either rockets or short-range ballistic missiles. If it’s a new weapon that will be the fourth (probably) new system they’ve tested since the failure of February’s Hanoi summit between Trump and Kim Jong-un.

SOUTH KOREA

The South Korean military is engaging in exercises around the Dokdo islands. What makes that interesting is that those islands are also claimed by Japan, which calls them the Takeshima islands. This is no coincidence. South Korea and Japan have been increasingly at loggerheads over the issue of World War II reparations, so this would merely be the latest in a series of deliberate provocations. The Japanese government has protested the exercises.

JAPAN

Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō reached agreement on the broad outline of a new US-Japan trade deal on the sidelines of the G7. They say they’re hoping to have the details completed in time to sign the accord next month in New York, when Abe will be attending the United Nations General Assembly. Part of the deal apparently involves Japan buying up the corn that US farmers can no longer sell to China due to the trade war, though Abe and Trump seemed to disagree over whether the private sector (according to Abe) or the Japanese government (according to Trump) would be spearheading the purchase.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Sudan’s new transitional government already has its first state of emergency. Inter-communal fighting between the Ben-Amer and displaced (from southern Sudan) Nuba peoples has killed at least 16 people in the Port Sudan region since Wednesday, hence the state of emergency. Under the transitional agreement Sudan’s Sovereign Council is only supposed to declare a state of emergency in response to a request from the cabinet, but as Sudan doesn’t have a cabinet yet the council went ahead and did this on its own.

Meanwhile, new Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok says his country needs some $8 billion in foreign aid to rebuild following the upheavals of the past several months, and another $2 billion in foreign currency investment to stabilize the Sudanese pound. Hamdok says he’s talking with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank about restructuring Sudan’s debt but seems reluctant to adopt any mandatory austerity program. He also wants to focus on ending Sudan’s multiple internal conflicts, which could free up a substantial portion of the government’s budget for other, more productive purposes.

LIBYA

Tripoli’s Mitiga airport had to suspend operations again on Saturday after a missile or rocket strike, for which the Libyan government has blamed Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army.” The government also says that an LNA airstrike killed three civilians south of Tripoli on Saturday.

TUNISIA

Although leading presidential candidate and TV media baron Nabil Karoui was arrested on Friday on allegations of money laundering and tax evasion, Tunisian authorities say he remains a candidate ahead of next month’s election. Supporters have accused the government of arresting Karoui, who has led in several polls (though as far as I can tell there hasn’t been much polling data released lately), in an attempt to throw the election to Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, though authorities have denied this and it’s not clear that Chahed would be the main beneficiary should Karoui’s star dim. The election will take place on September 15 with a runoff to follow soon after in the likely event no candidate wins a majority in the first round.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

The Russian military test fired two submarine launched ballistic missiles in the Arctic Ocean/Barents Sea region on Saturday. One of the missiles was a liquid-fueled Sineva, but the more interesting was a new solid-fueled SLBM called the Bulava. That missile, which entered service in 2014, is Russia’s first ever solid fuel SLBM.

One of the doctors who treated victims of that Russian nuclear-powered missile test failure a couple of weeks ago apparently now has traces of radiation in his system. There are reports of medical personnel involved in that incident who say they were not told about the radioactive nature of the test by authorities before they treated the victims. The Russian government is denying those allegations and has suggested the doctor was irradiated by something he ate.

DENMARK

Stymied in his dream of buying Greenland, Donald Trump now apparently wants to put a US consulate there. So that’s nice. Trump, who canceled next month’s planned visit to Denmark after Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen called the idea of the US buying Greenland “absurd,” which he decided was “nasty,” apparently talked with her on Friday and she’s now “a wonderful woman.”

ITALY

At this point the odds of the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party managing to reach a coalition agreement by Tuesday’s deadline appear low, and the main sticking point turns out to be Five Star’s insistence that current Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte continue serving in that role. The Democrats are instead insisting on Five Star’s Roberto Fico, who currently serves as the speaker of Italy’s lower house of parliament, the Chamber of Deputies, and is among Five Star’s more left-wing figures. If Five Star insists on Conte—and it’s likely Conte is really standing in for a much bigger list of disagreements between the two parties—it could explore the possibility of resuming its coalition with the League. League leader Matteo Salvini seems increasingly interested in letting bygones be bygones, though he will presumably want to renegotiate the terms of their arrangement in some way, so that he can claim that his political shenanigans of the last several weeks were all Worth It.

FRANCE

The G7 summit in Biarritz does not appear to be going very well, and I don’t just mean because French police in nearby Bayonne are pounding protesters with water cannons and tear gas. Although the other members of the club have apparently been going to some lengths to avoid making President Baby mad, ides to Donald Trump have been angrily accusing French President Emmanuel Macron of trying to embarrass their boss by focusing this year’s conference on “niche issues.” The fact that Trump is the proverbial turd in the punch bowl at these meetings may be his only non-revolting feature, frankly, but in this case by “niche issues” they mean things like development in Africa, gender equality, and climate change. Which, respectively, involve over 1.2 billion people, slightly less than half (according to the World Bank) of the human population, and the entire human population. Those seem like some pretty big niches.

The aides have been accusing the leaders of the G7 nations—whose governments collectively have heaped an incalculable amount of misery on humanity in the name of a hard right-wing economic agenda since the original G4 (the “Library Group”) first got together in 1973—of worrying about “politically correct bromides” instead of “core issues” related to the global economy. Apparently, Africa, women, and massive upheavals in biomes all over the planet aren’t relevant to the economy.

SPAIN

The Sant Sebastia beach in Barcelona had to be evacuated on Sunday when an off-duty police officer out for a swim found a bomb in the water that probably dates back to the Spanish Civil War. See, World War II isn’t the only war that keeps on giving back. Specialists will attempt to defuse the device on Monday but the beach will remain closed until further notice.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

As promised, Jair Bolsonaro’s government is now turning the Brazilian military loose on the fires raging across multiple parts of the Amazon rain forest. Brazilian C-130s are dousing fires with water, thousands of soldiers are being put to work as fire fighters, and Justice Minister Sérgio Moro has authorized Brazilian security forces to take action to prevent “illegal deforestation” and punish anybody found to be setting the fires deliberately. The folks doing the illegal deforestation are mostly the same large Brazilian agribusiness concerns that paid to get Bolsonaro elected because he promised them he’d let them clear cut the rain forest. So this is a bit like calling in a SWAT team to stop your cousin from taking your car after you just gave him the keys.

The leaders of the G7 nations have pledged to assist Brazilian efforts to fight the fires, and several countries are also offering assistance to Bolivia, which is now being affected by the blazes. This comes after several European leaders, most prominently French President Emmanuel Macron, have harshly criticized Bolsonaro over the fires and his rain forest policy in general. These leaders have not, of course, offered to do the one thing that might help preserve the rain forest without coming off as a colonial diktat to the Brazilian government, which is to pay Brazil to leave the rain forest alone.

The one legitimate response Bolsonaro has to criticism on his management of the rain forest is that those same European countries have been wrecking the planet’s environment since the Industrial Revolution, but only put their collective foot down when a country in the Global South does something harmful. As repugnant as Bolsonaro is and as terrible as his handling of the rain forest has been, he’s not wrong on that point. One solution might be economic aid to Brazil conditioned on preservation of the rain forest. Some European governments have done this in relatively small amounts, but they and the US should be doing much more of it. They might not be able to appeal to Bolsonaro, but hopefully he won’t be in office forever.

UNITED STATES

Finally, at the New York Times, Defense News reporter Valerie Insinna has perhaps the most comprehensive look yet at the F-35 program, which is finally producing a steady stream of the planes but clearly still hasn’t worked out many of their kinks:

Slowly, though, the program and its reputation have improved over the ensuing five years. Lockheed has now delivered more than 400 planes to American and foreign militaries, and the unit cost per aircraft has dropped significantly. In 2018, the F-35 completed its first combat operation for the Marine Corps in Afghanistan. The Air Force used it for airstrikes in Iraq about six months later. Later this year or in early 2020, the F-35 will go into full-rate production, with Lockheed expected to churn out 130 to 160 or more planes per year, a huge step up from the 91 planes delivered in 2018. That production milestone will be a symbolic turning point for the program, evidence that major problems that plagued the Joint Strike Fighter in the past are now history.

Yet even as the program plows forward, unresolved technical issues have continued to emerge. In June, my colleagues and I at Defense News reported that the plane still faced at least 13 severe technical deficiencies during operational testing, including spikes in cabin pressure, some rare instances of structural damage at supersonic speeds and unpredictability while conducting extreme maneuvers — all problems that could affect the pilot’s safety or jeopardize a mission’s success. At the same time, the F-35s already delivered to squadrons have introduced new complications: On military bases around the United States, the high cost of operating the aircraft, a shortage of spare parts and a challenging new approach to updating the jet’s crucial software code have program officials and military leaders urgently looking for solutions. Still, they assure the public that nothing will prevent the program from moving forward. It’s a stance that breaks with the advice of the Government Accountability Office, which advised that all serious problems should be resolved before transitioning to full-rate production.