World update: December 10 2019

Stories from the United Arab Emirates, Somalia, Greenland, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

December 9, 1824: The armies of Peru and Gran Colombia defeat a Spanish royalist army in the Battle of Ayacucho. Considered one of the last major engagements of the Latin American wars of independence, the Peruvian-Colombian victory ensured Peru’s independence and cleared the way for the Peruvian commander, General Antonio José de Sucre, to enter Upper Peru (modern Bolivia) and campaign there.

December 9, 1917: The retreating Ottoman army surrenders the city of Jerusalem to Britain. We’ll cover this in a bit more detail tomorrow.

December 9, 1961: The Tanganyika Territory, which later merged with Zanzibar to form Tanzania, gains independence from the United Kingdom. Commemorated as Tanzania’s independence day.

December 9, 1987: The First Intifada begins

December 10, 1520: Martin Luther burns a copy of the papal bull Exsurge Domine, which had censured several passages of Luther’s writing and threatened him with excommunication unless he recanted. Clearly he did not recant, and Pope Leo X did indeed excommunicate him in January 1521.

Martin Luther burning Exsurge Domine, by 19th/20th century Swedish artist Karl Aspelin (Wikimedia Commons)

December 10, 1877: The Russians capture Plevna

December 10, 1898: The Treaty of Paris ends the Spanish-American War. Under its terms, Spain agreed to give up its claims on Cuba (which became a US protectorate) and turned Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico over to the United States. It is often considered the end of the Spanish empire, though Spain still held some colonies so that’s not really accurate, and the first emergence of the United States as a major world power.

MIDDLE EAST

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel took a step closer to a new election on Tuesday when Knesset members from the Likud and Blue and White parties submitted a bill to dissolve the legislature. That measure is expected to be approved on Wednesday. Nobody was able to form a governing coalition after September’s snap election, just as nobody was able to do so after April’s first go-round. The deadline to form a government expires on Wednesday, with another snap election likely to be scheduled for March 2.

QATAR

Qatar will begin hosting the 2019 FIFA Club World Cup this week, an event that’s once again drawing attention to the country’s wretched labor practices:

As Liverpool fans stream into Qatar to watch the Fifa Club World Cup next week, it will be easy to forget the thousands of workers from the poorest countries in the region who have toiled for years to construct its glittering buildings.

When they take their seats at the Khalifa International Stadium, where Liverpool will play their semi-final match, they may not realise that scores of workers who refurbished the stadium were housed in filthy, overcrowded accommodation with an ever-present stench of raw sewage.

There will be no announcements to inform them that these men were paid less than promised, their passports were confiscated and they were unable to change jobs or quit the country, leaving some vulnerable to forced labour, a modern form of slavery, according to Amnesty International.

The families of workers who die on the job generally receive little or no compensation, which the Qataris justify by categorizing most on-the-job deaths as due to “natural causes.” The thing is, when you force a person to work in 120 degree heat until they drop dead of a heart attack, they may technically have died from the heart attack but there was nothing “natural” about it.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

A new Reuters investigation has uncovered the role played by former senior US counterterrorism personnel, like ex-counterterrorism coordinator Richard Clarke, in developing the UAE’s massive spying network:

Reuters reports this year revealed how a group of former National Security Agency operatives and other elite American intelligence veterans helped the UAE spy on a wide range of targets through the previously undisclosed program — from terrorists to human rights activists, journalists and dissidents.

Now, an examination of the origins of DREAD [the “Development Research Exploitation and Analysis Department”], reported here for the first time, shows how a pair of former senior White House leaders, working with ex-NSA spies and Beltway contractors, played pivotal roles in building a program whose actions are now under scrutiny by federal authorities.

To chart the UAE spying mission’s evolution, Reuters examined more than 10,000 DREAD program documents and interviewed more than a dozen contractors, intelligence operatives and former government insiders with direct knowledge of the program. The documents Reuters reviewed span nearly a decade of the DREAD program, starting in 2008, and include internal memos describing the project’s logistics, operational plans and targets.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Riyadh ended on Tuesday with a call for unity but not much actual unity. Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani did indeed stay away, represented by his prime minister, Abdullah bin Nasser Al Thani. The actual substantive part of the summit lasted less than an hour, but there were no signs of discord. It is possible that the Saudis, who originally led the boycott of Qatar in 2017, are now being hindered in any attempt at reconciliation by the other participants, particularly the United Arab Emirates. Whatever the reason it’s clear that GCC members aren’t quite ready to let bygones be bygones.

The Trump administration on Tuesday said that it would prevent ex-Saudi diplomat Mohammed al-Otaibi from entering the United States. Otaibi was the Saudi consul-general in Istanbul when journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered there, and has already been sanctioned by the US over his involvement in that incident. The administration has also suspended the training of some 300 Saudi military aviation students currently in the United States, in the wake of Friday’s shooting at a US naval base in Pensacola by a Saudi student in what appears to have been an act of terrorism.

IRAN

Iranian banks have experienced a major data breach, involving the financial data of around a fifth of the Iranian population, that appears likely to have been the work of a state actor. Israel and/or the United States would be the logical suspects, though neither government has commented. The affected banks have all been targeted by US sanctions. Iranian officials are trying to pin the breach on a “disgruntled contractor,” possibly in order to minimize panic.

Meanwhile, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres reported to the US Security Council on Tuesday that investigators have been “unable to independently corroborate” accusations that Iranian weapons were used in the September attacks on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais. I have no real comment here and obviously this doesn’t disprove the theory that Iran was responsible for the attack. But it is interesting to note.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

In an interview with the Associated Press over the Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” expose, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai blamed his government’s rampant corruption on the United States:

Karzai said the U.S. spent hundreds of millions of dollars in its war on terror, with the money flowing to contractors and private security firms, and that this fostered corruption.

“What could we do? It was U.S. money coming here and used by them and used for means that did not help Afghanistan,” Karzai said.

He argued that there was no accountability.

“I’m glad this report is out, and I hope this becomes an eye-opener to the American people and that the U.S. government begins to change its attitude now toward Afghanistan,” he said, describing America’s fostering of corruption as a “tool” to impose their game plan.

Obviously there’s a lot of self-serving spin to dig through here, and the idea that corruption was unknown in Kabul until the US showed up shoveling piles of money at everyone is laughable. But the papers do make it clear that the US either wanted to foster a culture of corruption or didn’t really care whether it did.

KASHMIR

The Indian government has relaxed some aspects of the martial law it imposed in Kashmir back in August, just before stripping the region of its constitutional autonomy. But it has kept in place harsh restrictions on mosques and other Muslim religious sites, most of which remain closed altogether. For obvious reasons the preaching at Kashmiri mosques tends to get political, and so Indian authorities can justify something like this on security grounds. but it feeds into the larger picture of an intolerant right-wing government that has made a mission out of driving Indian Islam as far underground as possible.

MYANMAR

The Trump administration on Tuesday imposed sanctions on four senior leaders of the Myanmar military or Tatmadaw, including its commander in chief Min Aung Hlaing, over human rights violations committed against the Rohingya. Those sanctions were announced as Myanmar leader and Worst. Nobel. Laureate. Ever. (it’s debatable but she’s certainly in the conversation) Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to The Hague to defend Myanmar against a genocide charge over the Rohingya, brought against it by The Gambia at the United Nations International Court of Justice. Suu Kyi listened to The Gambia’s case on Tuesday and will make her defense on Wednesday. She’s expected to argue that the military was justified in undertaking an operation against suspected Rohingya terrorists and that it did not commit any of the multiple and pretty thoroughly documented human rights violations it’s said to have committed.

CAMBODIA

The administration has also sanctioned two men within Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s inner circle over corruption allegations. The sanctions are unlikely to have any practical effect and are basically a statement of US disapproval of Cambodia’s authoritarian government.

PHILIPPINES

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte plans to end the state of emergency that’s governed the Mindanao region since Islamic State-aligned fighters tried to seize control of the city of Marawi in May 2017. That state of emergency will expire at the end of the year and Duterte’s national security team has apparently concluded that the Islamist groups in Mindanao have been worn down enough that an attack of the scale of the Marawi incident is no longer within their capabilities.

NORTH KOREA

38 North’s Michael Elleman argues that the rocket engine test the North Koreans conducted at their Sohae satellite facility over the weekend did not involve a solid-fueled engine, as has been speculated. I’ll let you click the link to read his case but the upshot is that solid-fueled engines are generally tested horizontally because of their weight, and this test was conducted in a vertical testing structure. Elleman suggests the test may simply have involved a larger engine designed to carry a larger payload—satellite or other.

AFRICA

LIBYA

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan let it be known on Tuesday that, should the Libyan government ask Ankara to send forces to help it fend off Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army,” Turkey would do so. I’m a little skeptical that this is anything more than talk. The Turkish military already has a lot on its plate what with its occupation of most of northern Syria, for one thing. For another thing, Russia has clearly thrown its support behind Haftar and it would be awkward for the Turks to enter another military conflict on the side opposite Moscow. Syria is sort of understandable but this wouldn’t be as easy to explain. Turkey did just recently sign a military cooperation agreement with Libya but promising to help and actually helping are two different things.

SOUTH SUDAN

In what was apparently a big day for announcing new sanctions, the Trump administration blacklisted five South Sudanese officials suspected of involvement in the 2017 disappearances of a South Sudanese politician and a human rights lawyer in Kenya. The two men haven’t been seen since and the US government believes they’ve been quietly executed. The South Sudanese government has insisted it has no idea what happened to them.

The global teak trade may be funding violence in South Sudan, according to the Center for Advanced Defense in Washington. The think tank suggests that unregulated teak logging could be funneling millions of dollars illicitly to armed militias and the South Sudanese military.

ETHIOPIA

Representatives from Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan will meet in Washington on January 13 to continue their negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam and its impact on downstream Nile water flows. Foreign ministers from those three countries met on Monday with US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and World Bank President David Malpass and will hold two technical meetings prior to that January 13 session. If all goes well at those meetings it’s conceivable that the January meeting could involve putting the finishing touches on an agreement. At the core of the discussion are concerns over the pace of filling the GERD’s reservoir, which is the part of the process that can heavily impact the Nile basin. Egypt wants the Ethiopians to go slowly, with rules in place requiring them to slow down even further should water levels drop for some other reason. The Ethiopians have wanted to do things more quickly and with less variance. The statement the three parties issued after Monday’s meeting suggested that the Ethiopians may be moving toward the Egyptian position.

SOMALIA

Al-Shabab fighters have reportedly attacked a hotel complex in Mogadishu. As far as I know the attack is ongoing so it’s too early for any sort of casualty count. Somali authorities say that police were able to kill two of the attackers before they entered the hotel and have been able to rescue at least 82 people from the facility. There is also a report of a simultaneous attack by al-Shabab fighters on the nearby presidential residence in which Somali police were able to kill all five attackers. That attack may have been coordinated with the hotel attack or the failure of one may have caused fighters to look for a new target and seize on the hotel. But at this point I would say it’s still too chaotic to try to piece together exactly what happened, where, and when.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

The Trump administration also imposed sanctions on Tuesday against six senior figures in the Allied Democratic Forces, an Islamist group that may be affiliated with the Islamic State and has definitely killed scores of civilians in the northeastern DRC in recent months. Included among them is the group’s leader, Musa Baluku. Needless to say it is exceedingly unlikely that anybody affiliated with the ADF has a summer home in Nantucket or plans on checking out the Galaxy’s Edge attractions at Disney World, so these sanctions are also mostly for symbolic purposes at the present time.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov visited the White House on Tuesday for meetings with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump. Pompeo and Trump both told Lavrov that the Russian government should under no circumstances throw them into that briar patch over there—er, I mean, that it should not meddle in next year’s US presidential election. Lavrov told reporters that he wants the administration to allow the release of “bilateral communications” that somehow prove that Russia didn’t interfere in the 2016 election, but said that the administration is refusing to do so for reasons that aren’t at all clear.

The gang talked about a variety of issues, perhaps most urgently the subject of arms control, given that the window for renewing New START is closing. Lavrov reiterated Moscow’s willingness to renew the treaty, but the Trump administration’s position has been that China must participate in the accord moving forward, and the Chinese government has signaled absolutely no interest in doing so. There’s not much the Russians can really do about that.

UKRAINE

While Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Vladimir Putin did come to a preliminary agreement during their Paris peace talks on Monday regarding the transit of Russian natural gas through Ukrainian pipelines and on to the rest of Europe, they did not make any headway on a new deal to supply Russian natural gas to Ukraine. That may be why Zelenskiy was reportedly disappointed in the progress made at the meeting even though realistically not that much was likely to be achieved given how frozen the Ukraine conflict has become. Ukraine’s natural gas contract with Russia expires this year and the combination of hostility and a substantial Ukrainian debt has made negotiating a new deal difficult.

UNITED KINGDOM

A heavily-watched new poll from YouGov has the Conservative Party winning a modest majority in Thursday’s election but shows that the contours of the election campaign have changed dramatically since the race began. The YouGov MRP poll, which proved accurate in the 2017 UK election, shows the Tories winning a 28 seat majority, which seems reasonable until you account for the fact that the same poll done two weeks ago had them winning a 68 seat majority. Another poll from Focaldata has the Conservatives winning a 24 seat majority—and that’s down from 82 seats last month. A Labour Party victory still looks like a long shot, but these results—and the speed with which this Tory majority appears to be shrinking—could mean that a hung parliament is well within the realm of possibility come Thursday. Which would add a whole new level of chaos to British politics.

AMERICAS

ARGENTINA

Alberto Fernández officially took office as president of Argentina on Tuesday. Fernández’ election in October bucked the trend that Latin American politics has taken away from the “pink tide” of the 1990s and 2000s and toward right-wing austerity. It was, in fact, a direct repudiation of the austerity agenda of his predecessor, Mauricio Macri, which crippled the Argentine economy. Needless to say Fernández now has his work cut out for him:

To steady the political ship, the country will need to secure some form of economic stability. Argentines are growing increasingly restless after eight years of nonexistent growth. Alberto Fernández, for his part, will need to open his term with a mega-distribution package to offset deep social unrest, but he will also look to favor exports as a means to service foreign debt.

Wage negotiations could be a major sticking point in this balancing act between political and economic stability. Increases in real wages could potentially trigger a surge in the already high rate of inflation, and in Argentina, the specter of hyperinflation carries with it the memory of institutional collapse. The aim of Fernández’s recently announced “social pact” is to bring industrialists, the agricultural sector, and trade unions together around the table to reach an agreement on wages and production goals — a scenario that will probably irritate many leftists in Argentina and abroad.

Failing to do so, a hyperinflationary spiral could produce one of two eventualities: a flow of votes back to Macri’s neoliberal project, or a generalized social upheaval, the political effects of which are unpredictable. This would mean a stress test to see if the two-party system is in fact as stable as it appears.

MEXICO

The United States, Canada, and Mexico are friends again after signing the new USMCA pact—AKA NAFTA II—on Tuesday. In a rare display of the ability understand and use leverage, Democrats in the House of Representatives forced the Trump administration to reopen the agreement, which was reached last year, to add additional protections for workers and strengthen its environmental provisions. Democrats signaled on Tuesday that they would pass the revised agreement, sounding a somewhat discordant note by giving Donald Trump a big legislative victory on the same day that they were filing articles of impeachment against him. Ironically it may be Senate Republicans, who are not terribly interested in protecting workers or the environment and really don’t seem to like USMCA’s provisions that are intended to contain drug prices, who fight to get the deal amended further.

GREENLAND

Greenland is shedding ice much faster than previously believed and some seven times faster than it was losing ice in the 1990s, throwing climate prediction models out of whack. The rate of melting means that global sea levels are likely to rise by 67 centimeters by the end of this century, not the 60 centimeters predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. This means that some 400 million people will be threatened by rising seas by 2100, where the IPCC had previously predicted the number would be 360 million. In general, Arctic ice is disappearing at an alarming rate, which has multiplier effects as the loss of ice allows air temperatures to rise faster, which in turn melts more ice.

UNITED STATES

Finally, Donald Trump plans to sign an executive order on Wednesday that promises to make it nearly impossible to have an honest conversation about the Middle East on a US college campus:

In signing the order, Mr. Trump will use his executive power to take action where Congress has not, essentially replicating bipartisan legislation that has stalled on Capitol Hill for years. Prominent Democrats have joined Republicans in promoting such a policy change at a time of rising tension on campuses over anti-Semitism as well as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions or B.D.S. movement against Israel.

But critics have complained that such a policy could be used to stifle free speech and legitimate opposition to Israel’s policies toward Palestinians in the name of fighting anti-Semitism. The definition of anti-Semitism to be used in the order, which matches the one used by the State Department, has been criticized as too open-ended and sweeping.

For instance, it describes as anti-Semitic “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination,” and offers as an example of such behavior “claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

Opponents of the definition fear that it could be used to declare any defense of Palestinian autonomy to be anti-Semitic, with federal education funding as a cudgel.

The order, in a nutshell, will declare Judaism to be a nationality as well as a religion. Criticism of Israel will then be covered under, and this part really takes the cake, Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on “national origin.” Most American Jews are, of course, not Israeli—but they will be now as far as the US government is concerned. This is of a piece with incidents like the time Trump referred to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as “your prime minister” to a crowd of Jewish Republicans or his repeated suggestions that “Jewish” and “Israeli” are or ought to be synonymous. This, it must be stressed, is actual antisemitism, because embedded in these remarks is a sense that Jewish Americans can’t really be American, they must be Israeli first. Historically that sort of otherizing that can lead to some very bad places.