World update: August 27 2019

Stories from Iraq, Israel-Palestine, Romania, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

August 26, 1071: The Battle of Manzikert

August 26, 1922: The Turkish army begins what’s called the “Great Offensive,” its final push to oust an occupying Greek army from Anatolia. The offensive was successful and brought the 1919-1922 Greco-Turkish War, a theater of the Turkish War of Independence, to a successful conclusion from the Turkish perspective.

August 27, 1896: Shortly after 9 AM local time, British forces invade the Zanzibar Sultanate over a succession dispute. Around 40 minutes later the Anglo-Zanzibar War was over and Britain’s man was on the throne. The shortest war in recorded history marks the point at which Britain’s protectorate over Zanzibar really kicked into high gear and the sultanate ceased to be an independent political entity in any meaningful sense.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Syrian rebels reportedly launched a major counterattack on Tuesday to try to stop the Syrian army’s advance into Idlib province. Multiple rebel factions appear to be involved, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the most powerful rebel group in Idlib, and the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front. They’re trying to prevent the Syrian army from moving north along the M5 highway and eventually taking the city of Maarat al-Numan, which appears to be its next target. The counteroffensive is likely going to fail because only one side here has air support, but that said the Syrian army is perpetually overextended so the rebels might be able to do enough damage to force a pause in operations.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan visited Moscow on Tuesday, where he and Vladimir Putin agreed on “additional joint steps” to stabilize the situation in Idlib, in Putin’s words. As to what those might be, your guess is as good as mine. The two leaders didn’t even really appear to be on the same page in Moscow, with Putin focusing his comments on ridding Idlib of extremists like HTS and Erdoğan on the protection of Turkish military observer units in the province. Putin suggested establishing a new safe zone along the Turkish border in Idlib, which could be packed with people displaced by the fighting to the south and by Syrian refugees who get kicked out of Turkey. Until, of course, the Syrian military shows up to take that territory back as well.

The ever-shrinking Idlib safe zone is an exercise in can-kicking—a way to accommodate Bashar al-Assad’s reconquest of the country while avoiding questions about whether Syria can ever reabsorb all the people displaced by the war. Assad doesn’t want them back, for the most part they don’t seem to want to go back, but where are they supposed to go? That’s the part everybody’s desperate to avoid.

Speaking of safe zones, the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Kurdish YPG militia say they’re moving fighters and heavy weapons away from the Turkish border in northeastern Syria. However, according to Rudaw the SDF has only actually started moving weaponry, not personnel, suggesting a gradual approach on their part. Washington and Ankara are trying to work out the details of a “safe zone” along the border that would be empty of Kurdish fighters while effectively blocking Turkey’s ability to invade northeastern Syria the way it has in northwestern Syria’s Afrin region. They have a joint operations center for managing the safe zone but they don’t have the actual zone yet. One sticking point appears to be the size—Turkey wants the zone to extend some 40 kilometers into Syria, which is probably too far for the US and definitely too far for the Kurds.

YEMEN

Yemeni government forces, who are totally not working with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have reportedly taken several areas in Abyan province from forces aligned with the separatist Southern Transitional Council. Subsequently on Tuesday the government side appears to have declared a temporary ceasefire in order to support Saudi-UAE diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict with the STC.

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the US wants to open up a backchannel dialogue with the Houthis and would eventually want to bring the Saudis into those talks as well. The immediate goal would be a Yemeni ceasefire, which could involve making some concessions to the Houthis.

TURKEY

Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu says that so far his government has cut some 357 million lira (a bit over $61.2 million) in funding that previous Istanbul governments had been funneling to foundations tied to Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party. The risk that İmamoğlu could turn off this particular spigot is one of the reasons why Erdoğan fought so hard to undo his mayoral election earlier this year. I’m sure these moves are not being well-received in Ankara.

IRAQ

Two Iraqi soldiers were killed on their base on Monday night by Islamic State snipers in Diyala province.

Meanwhile, the series of probably-Israeli drone strikes against Iraqi militia groups over the past month or so hasn’t done much to endear the US to Iraqi politicians. The Fatah Alliance, which is the second-largest bloc in the Iraqi parliament and is effectively the political arm of the Popular Mobilization Forces, is now calling for the removal of all US personnel from Iraq, holding Washington ultimately responsible for what it calls “a declaration of war on Iraq and its people.” Meanwhile, a new (?) group calling itself “Soldiers of the Imam al-Hujjah” (an epithet for the 12th Imam/Mahdi) is threatening to “attack every single US civil and military base within Iraq if Trump does not withdraw them.” It’s unclear who they are but they’ve referred to attacks on “our” bases, which strongly suggests PMF ties.

The Iraqi government has begun a new phase in its operation to track down Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and other senior IS figures, and the consensus seems to be that he’s back in Syria. It’s thought that Baghdadi briefly crossed into Iraq after the SDF captured Baghouz but that he’s since crossed back due to a more hospitable situation in Syria. Many Arabs in eastern Syria are fed up with the SDF and that’s opened up a little space for IS to exist there.

LEBANON

Reuters says that “two sources close to Hezbollah” have told it that the group wants to conduct a “calculated strike” against Israel as a response to that Israeli drone attack in southern Beirut over the weekend. Because naturally when you’re preparing to retaliate against your enemy, the first step is to blab about it to Reuters. I think Sun Tzu said that. Although Israel attacks Hezbollah regularly in Syria, it’s supposed to refrain from attacks in Lebanon under the ceasefire (which, I grant you, has been violated before) that ended the 2006 Lebanon War. That is what will provoke a Hezbollah response (assuming one is forthcoming).

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli military conducted more airstrikes on Gaza on Tuesday, this time in response to mortar fire. It struck a “Hamas military position.” Later on Tuesday two Gazan police checkpoints were hit by explosions, killing at least three police officers and wounding several other people. The first explosion involved a motorcycle carrying two people that had just passed through the checkpoint, and it’s not clear if the two dead are the people on the motorcycle or if they managed to survive. These sure do appear to have been deliberate attacks but then the question is whether they were Israeli airstrikes (the Israeli military denies this) or militant attacks (there are small groups in Gaza that oppose Hamas and are aligned with more extreme elements, and Islamic State of course has an affiliate right over the border in Sinai).

UPDATE: It’s believed the attacks were carried out by Islamic State, likely in retaliation for a recent Hamas operation against IS elements inside Gaza.

At LobeLog, Paul Pillar assesses the recent flurry of Israeli military activity across the Middle East:

The escalated Israeli military campaign exhibits some longstanding attributes of Israeli policies and practices. One is to assert a right to seek absolute security even if that means absolute insecurity for everyone else. The mere possibility of someone harming Israel is taken as sufficient reason to inflict certain harm on someone else. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in commenting on the most recent Israeli operations in Syria, said that Israel “won’t tolerate attacks on its territory.” Evidently that means asserting the privilege of attacking anyone else’s territory, even if those countries have not already attacked Israel.

Domestic politics figures into such matters, in Israel as elsewhere. With an Israeli election looming, Netanyahu has a political reason to use aggressive operations to bolster his image as a tough-minded guardian of Israeli security.

The operations also are part of the larger anti-Iran theme that the Israeli government uses to keep a regional rival weak, preclude any rapprochement between that rival and the United States, blame someone other than itself for all the ills of the region, and distract international attention from subjects involving Israel that Netanyahu’s government would rather not talk about. The Israeli government wants to retain Iran permanently as a perceived threat, loathed and isolated, rather than to negotiate away any issues or problems involving Iran. Netanyahu demonstrated this when, after years of sounding an alarm about a possible Iranian nuclear weapon, he opposed the very agreement that closed all possible paths to such a weapon. His government demonstrated it again this week when it opposed President Trump’s expressed willingness to meet and negotiate with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

That last bit frequently gets lost in the noise but it’s worth highlighting: the Israeli right on some level needs Iran to stay just the way it is. Its list of grievances about Iran is more valuable than any outcome that would address those grievances.

QATAR

Qatar has increased its agricultural production by a whopping 400 percent since Saudi Arabia and Friends imposed their blockade on the country in 2017 and cut it off from its traditional sources of things like dairy products. Access to a virtually limitless pool of natural gas wealth can help you achieve amazing things, I guess. That said, Qatar is now overtaxing its limited supply of groundwater, and its aquifers are being infiltrated by seawater and chemical fertilizer runoff. Agricultural enterprises are exploring more sustainable farming methods but getting farmers and herders to switch could be difficult. That said, all that money will help in these efforts as well.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Saudis say they shot down another Houthi drone heading toward the kingdom on Tuesday. They say they shot it down inside Yemen and there’s no word as to where it might have been headed.

IRAN

Don’t get your hopes up about any US-Iran summit just yet. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who said on Monday that he’s open to meeting with Donald Trump, clarified (or walked back in the face of criticism from Iranian conservatives—you decide) those remarks on Tuesday. Rouhani said he would not meet with Trump unless Trump lifted US sanctions against Iran beforehand. Since Trump has already ruled that out, the chances of a meeting appear pretty low.

ASIA

PAKISTAN

Pakistani Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry says that Imran Khan may once again close Pakistani airspace to India over New Delhi’s revocation of Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy. Khan took that step in February when India and Pakistan nearly went to war over a terrorist attack in Kashmir. He reopened the airspace to India last month.

CHINA

If it seems increasingly like the Pentagon exists primarily to protect and expand the profit margins of US arms manufacturers, well, maybe it does. Now it’s “making a push to boost domestic production of crucial technology in hopes of cultivating an American alternative that can be used securely on the battlefield,” which is the classy way to say it’s subsidizing defense contractors who are getting outsold by China under the justification that buying Chinese technology compromises US national security. Quadcopters, a market that China dominates, are apparently the first item on the list. The US military uses them for reconnaissance but is struggling to find non-Chinese alternatives.

SOUTH KOREA

The Trump administration is hoping that South Korea’s decision to hold military exercises near an island group that’s also claimed by Japan represents “rock bottom” in the Seoul-Tokyo relationship. The breakdown in that relationship, mostly over unresolved World War II grievances, is seriously affecting US efforts to contain China and threatens even to bleed into the regional approach toward North Korea. There’s no particular reason to think it has hit rock bottom yet, but hopefully when it does that will still be somewhere short of a military confrontation.

OCEANIA

AUSTRALIA

A new report from Oxfam Australia should be required reading for both the Morrison government and Trump White House. It found that if Australia were to increase its refugee intake to 44,000 per year by 2023, up from 18,750 per year now, it would boost the Australian economy by $37.7 billion over the next 50 years. Apparently racist xenophobia is both economically and morally wrong. Go figure.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Activists now say that at least 37 people were killed in inter-communal violence in the Port Sudan area last week, more than twice the number reported over the weekend when Sudan’s transitional government imposed a state of emergency there, with another 200 injured. The fighting, between the local Bani Amer people and ethnic Nuba who have been displaced from southern Sudan, is apparently mostly over water. The Sudanese government has moved some 700 soldiers into the area to try to restore order.

CAMEROON

Reuters is reporting that there’s been a new round of violence between anglophone separatists and government security forces in western Cameroon in recent days that has left at least 34 people dead. It’s also displaced thousands of people but Reuters’s sources couldn’t be more specific than that. Separatists have been demanding that families in anglophone Cameroon boycott schools as part of their protest against the predominantly francophone Cameroonian government, which has increased tension, but the real cause of the recent clashes appears to have been last week’s sentencing of ten separatist leaders to life terms.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Having established that there are more fires happening right now in Central Africa than South America, should we be as worried about the destruction of the Congolese rain forest as we are about the Amazon?

It’s apparently a land of contrasts:

Fire experts, however, are cautioning against comparing the situations in Africa and South America too closely. While the fires are racing through environmentally critical rain forests in Brazil and Bolivia, in Central Africa, they are incinerating savanna and scrubbier land, and mostly licking at the edges of the rainforest, said Lauren Williams, a forest expert with Global Forest Watch who is based in Kinshasa, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s capital.

In Central Africa, as in other parts of the world, many of the fires are typical for this time of year. While some ignite naturally in the dry season, others are deliberately set by farmers to clear land and improve crop yields.

In South America the burns spilled into sensitive areas and grew out of control. In Africa, some experts fear the same outcome, and say that Central African governments may be inadequately prepared to fight the blazes.

Irène Wabiwa Betoko, a forest manager with Greenpeace who is based in Kinshasa, said that regional governments are less equipped to fight these burns than their South American counterparts, both technically and financially.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

The Russian government has so far this week denied visas to two US Senators—Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Chris Murphy (D-CT). Both sit on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and have supported sanctions against Russia.

POLAND

A new poll from the firm Indicator puts Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party in good shape heading into October’s election. The survey has the party at 41.3 percent support, almost 13 points ahead of the second place Civic Coalition. A different survey last week had Law and Justice’s lead slipping into the single digits. The party won a slim parliamentary majority in 2015 while only pulling in around 37.5 percent of the vote, but it’s difficult to say whether a particular vote total represents a majority in any given election because it depends on how many smaller parties make it over the minimum vote threshold (five percent for single parties and eight percent for coalitions).

ROMANIA

Romania’s ruling party, by contrast, now looks like it might be on the way out. The Social Democrats, now heading a minority government after the ALDE party quit the governing coalition on Monday, has apparently failed to get the backing of the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania (UDMR) party ahead of an expected confidence vote next month, meaning the coalition is now likely to lose that vote. ALDE apparently quit after the Social Democrats refused to support its party leader as the government’s candidate to face incumbent Klaus Iohannis in November’s presidential election. UDMR says it will support an opposition unity government in a caretaker role to get Romania through next year’s scheduled parliamentary election.

ITALY

In Italy, meanwhile, Tuesday was a veritable whirlwind of emotions as the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party saw their coalition talks progress, then collapse, then progress again. It would appear that the main obstacle to a coalition, the status of Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, has finally been resolved with the Democrats agreeing to let him keep his job after Donald Trump tweeted something nice about him (those two things are probably not related). But the Conte issue was believed to have been settled on Monday only for it to become an issue again on Tuesday, so who knows what Wednesday will bring. Now the big hangup appears to be that Five Star party leader Luigi Di Maio is insisting that he remain deputy prime minister, which the Democrats are resisting. If they haven’t sorted it out by the time they’re scheduled to meet with President Sergio Mattarella on Wednesday afternoon, Italy could be headed for a new election.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

After turning down the G7’s generous offer of a whole $20 million to help fight the fires currently consuming parts of the Amazon rain forest on Monday, the Brazilian government changed its mind somewhat on Tuesday. President Jair Bolsonaro’s office, apparently under some pressure from the governors of the states hit hardest by the fires, said that it would welcome foreign firefighting aid provided that the Brazilian government maintain complete discretion as to how it was used. That’s a little catty but far less so than the position Bolsonaro himself articulated earlier in the day, when he said he’d only accept the G7’s money if French President Emmanuel Macron apologized for “insulting” him. Bolsonaro apparently doesn’t feel compelled to apologize for insulting Macron’s wife, but I suppose that’s to be expected.

BOLIVIA

Brazil is not the only South American country being hit hard by these fires. Bolivia is also struggling to deal with several blazes, and like Bolsonaro, Bolivian President Evo Morales is facing accusations that his policies have caused them:

Though they are far from kindred spirits, Morales and Bolsonaro share a similar culpability in what has unfolded this summer. The Bolivian president’s administration initially played down the scale of the fire before realizing its horrific reach after an outcry. Morales suspended his reelection campaign to help coordinate his government’s response. After his earlier reticence, he did an about-face and said he welcomes whatever aid the rest of the world can muster for Bolivia’s firefighting efforts.

But critics argue that the fires in Bolivia are also a product of policies that encouraged deforestation, including a recent decree aimed at boosting beef production for export that infuriated Bolivian civil society. Morales has a “top-down mentality about imposing development projects on the Amazon,” said Andrew Miller of conservation organization Amazon Watch on the left-wing radio show Democracy Now. “So, at the same time that Evo Morales has had some progressive policies, he’s also had tensions with indigenous peoples.”

And suddenly, Morales has something in common with his ideological foe across the border. “The two countries most affected [by the fires] have governments at opposite ends of the political spectrum, but their position on deforesting the Amazon is the same,” said Eugenio Coter, a prominent Bolivian bishop, to Catholic News Service. “There is no political or economic plan for the Amazon that does not depend on the extraction of natural resources.”

COLOMBIA

Peruvian President Martín Vizcarra and Colombian President Iván Duque called on Tuesday for a meeting of Amazonian heads of state in Colombia next month to discuss combating the fires and forest protection. Apart from Vizcarra and Duque, the list of attendees could conceivably include the leaders of Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela, since parts of each of those countries lie within the Amazon basin. Somehow I doubt they’re planning to invite Nicolás Maduro, but I suppose we’ll see.

UNITED STATES

Finally, the New Yorker’s Robin Wright recounts Donald Trump’s closing G7 press conference, in which he walked everybody through the events of the weekend summit as they’d occurred inside his Mind Palace:

As the world’s seven largest economic powers met in glamorous Biarritz, the lungs of the planet, in the Amazon rain forest, were ablaze. “I’m an environmentalist,” President Trump insisted, at a press conference on Monday, claiming that he knows more about the subject than most people. Yet hours earlier he had skipped the session on climate change, biodiversity, and oceans; the white high-backed chair reserved for him had been conspicuously empty. The White House insisted that he had “scheduled meetings” with the leaders of Germany and India, even though both were plainly in view at the climate session. (Never mind, as well, that the Trump Administration has rolled back at least eighty-three environmental regulations in less than three years.)

Trump also claimed that China had called his top trade negotiators “numerous” times during the two-day summit to signal China’s interest in getting “back to the table” to work on a deal to end the escalating trade war. On Friday, Beijing had announced retaliatory tariffs on seventy-five billion dollars of American imports—leading Trump to label China the “enemy” and the Dow to tumble more than six hundred points. On Monday, the President announced a surprise breakthrough. “You can say we’re having very meaningful talks, much more meaningful than I would say at any time, frankly,” he bragged. The Dow shot up almost three hundred points. Then, somewhat baffled, China’s Foreign Ministry denied any such recent calls—or any such progress.