World update: December 17 2019

Stories from North Korea, South Sudan, and Brazil


December 16, 755: Chinese general An Lushan declares himself emperor, attempting to usurp power from the ruling Tang Dynasty. The An Lushan Rebellion lasted over seven years (long after the death of its namesake in 757), and while it failed it also badly weakened the Tang Dynasty, which strengthened the neighboring Uyghur Khaganate and the Tibetan Empire.

December 16, 1912: A Greek fleet defeats an Ottoman fleet near the Dardanelles in the Battle of Elli, during the First Balkan War. For a relatively minor engagement the battle had major repercussions, as the Ottomans ceded the Aegean Sea to the Greeks which allowed Greece to annex several Aegean islands.

December 16, 1944: A major and sudden German offensive in the Ardennes Forest begins the Battle of the Bulge, one of the most important engagements on the Western Front in World War II. The battle ended on January 25, 1945, with an Allied victory. The German attack did delay the Allied advance into Germany by several weeks, but the cost was the near obliteration of whatever remained of the German military’s capacity to wage an offensive war.

December 16, 1971: The Indo-Pakistani War and Bangladesh Liberation War both end

December 16, 1991: Kazakhstan declares independence from the Soviet Union. Commemorated as “Republic Day” in Kazakhstan today.

December 17, 1398: The Battle of Delhi

December 17, 1907: Ugyen Wangchuck is crowed the first Buddhist king of Bhutan. Commemorated as “National Day” in Bhutan.

December 17, 2010: A Tunisian street vendor in Sidi Bouzid, named Mohamed Bouazizi, sets himself on fire to protest mistreatment by corrupt municipal authorities. Public outrage over Bouazizi’s case sparked the Tunisian Revolution, which in turn sparked the Arab Spring movement.



At least 17 people were reportedly killed in Syrian and Russian airstrikes in Idlib province on Tuesday. The strikes hit several towns and villages in the province, most of them in the vicinity of Maarrat al-Numan. That city is the Syrian government’s next target once it resumes its Idlib offensive in earnest. Meanwhile, Russia is preparing for a fight at the United Nations Security Council over the renewal of the UN’s cross-border aid deliveries. The UN currently brings aid in via four border crossings, two from Turkey and one each from Iraq and Jordan. That’s been woefully inadequate, so there’s a resolution circulating at the council to add another crossing from Turkey, which would also be inadequate but maybe a bit less so. The Russians are insisting that the number of crossings should actually be cut, down to just the two existing Turkish routes. If it doesn’t get its way, Moscow could veto the renewal and thus close all the border crossings.


Palestinian leaders are trying to organize their first election since 2006, but they’ll need permission from the Israeli government to include East Jerusalem and it’s unclear whether they’re going to get it. The Palestinian Authority is prohibited from operating in Jerusalem, at least according to the Israelis. But East Jerusalem is home to a substantial number of registered Palestinian voters. The election could still proceed even if East Jerusalem were unable to participate, but obviously it would be preferable not to disenfranchise those people.



Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration is not joining Congress in recognizing the Armenian Genocide. In a sense this doesn’t matter, since neither congressional vote on recognizing the genocide mattered—they were both nonbinding. The legislative branch recognizes the genocide while the executive branch doesn’t, and that’s probably how it will remain so long as there’s an administration in office that thinks it’s important to curry favor with Ankara.


At least ten people, all members of the same family, were killed on Tuesday when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in Khost province. Separately, at least 18 people were wounded by a similar device in Balkh province. The Taliban was presumably responsible for both.


Former Pakistani military dictator/president Pervez Musharraf was sentenced on Tuesday to execution (in absentia) for treason, over his decision to impose emergency rule in 2007 in order to undermine a court case over his eligibility to run in that year’s (indirect) presidential election. Musharraf’s actions in 2007 led directly to his ouster the following year, when he was facing impeachment. He’s now in exile in Dubai, and in poor health to boot, so there’s no chance this sentence will actually be implemented. It is, however, a slap at the Pakistani military, which has always played an uncomfortably large role in Pakistani politics. Suffice to say the military wasn’t terribly pleased with the sentence.


The Chinese government on Tuesday opted to postpone the UN Security Council meeting it had requested on the situation in Kashmir. The UN’s Kashmir mission was apparently not ready to deliver a report to the council, so China will reissue its request for a session when the mission is ready.


There were more clashes between protesters and police over India’s new citizenship law on Tuesday in New Delhi and the northeastern states of West Bengal and Assam. There were several reports of injuries and protesters in West Bengal apparently threw a homemade grenade at police, but there were no reports of fatalities.


China and Russia are pushing a measure at the Security Council that would relax international sanctions against North Korea, lifting a ban on North Korea’s exports of textiles and seafood while removing a ban on North Korean nationals working abroad. The resolution won’t pass because the US would veto if it were formally tabled, but it’s a pretty strong sign that the international consensus the US has built up with respect to North Korea is falling apart. Russian and Chinese participation has been key to maintaining that consensus but both countries now seem to be on board with Pyongyang’s campaign to demand sanctions relief as a reward for the concessions it’s already made.



Are Russia and Turkey heading for a conflict over Libya? The possibility does exist:

Kerim Has, a Moscow-based Turkish expert on Russian affairs, agrees that things could get sticky between Turkey and Russia in Libya, depending on how far the sides push their involvement in direct confrontation with the other.

Has told Al-Monitor, “Ankara’s stance in Libya is a clear portent of a new sphere of tension in Turkish-Russian relations. There are no signs that Russia supports the Turkey GNA deal. Quite the opposite. It's clearly disturbed by it, in particular with the articles pertaining to military cooperation.”

Moscow’s discomfort stems in part from its view that the Islamic State, Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadi elements have joined the ranks of GNA forces, Has said. Moscow would rather do business with the more secular Hifter, who, in any case, would likely give Russia a healthy stake in the country’s energy sector, if he were to prevail.

Neither Ankara nor Moscow seems inclined to back down from its position in Libya, but they’ll probably find a way to compartmentalize their disagreement the way they’ve done to some degree in Syria, for the sake of their broader relationship.


South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar wrapped up three days of negotiations in Juba on Tuesday with an agreement in principle (by which I mean it could still fall apart) to form a national unity government in February even if they haven’t completed the preliminary steps laid out in the peace agreement they signed last year. The implementation of that deal has been delayed twice now because those preliminary steps weren’t completely, with the parties now looking at February as their third deadline. They’re under pressure from the US, which has begun sanctioning individuals deemed to be interfering with the peace process.



Thousands of Czechs protested in Prague on Tuesday calling for the removal of Prime Minister Andrej Babiš from office. Babiš is under investigation over alleged corruption going back to his pre-politics business career, and the European Union has deemed there to be a conflict of interest between Babiš’s political position and his business empire. The Czech opposition has been organizing these protests to highlight Babiš’s ethical challenges. The PM’s ANO party is nevertheless still popular.


In a bid to increase support for his potential government, caretaker Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez on Tuesday offered to hold a “dialogue” on Catalan issues if he’s confirmed as PM in a parliamentary confidence vote. Sánchez is trying to get Catalan separatist legislators to back his Socialist party’s coalition with the leftist Podemos party, which remains 21 seats shy of a majority and therefore will need all the help it can get to win confirmation. A separatist party called the Republican Left of Catalonia controls 13 seats and would therefore get Sánchez most of the way to his goal. Sánchez isn’t sympathetic to the separatist movement but might be willing to work with Catalan leaders to ease regional tensions.


Tuesday saw another massive nationwide protest over President Emmanuel Macron’s plan to reform French workers right out of their pensions:

Police fired teargas and charged at demonstrators in central Paris as hundreds of thousands of protesters across the country staged a show of force against the government’s controversial pension reform plans.

The violence erupted at Place de la Nation, one of Paris’s biggest squares, as riot police attempted to disperse protesters. Police said they had charged after coming under a hail of paving stones and missiles. There were 27 arrests by late afternoon.

French authorities said there were 615,000 protesters on the streets across France on Tuesday, compared with 806,000 on 5 December, the first major day of action against the controversial reforms. The unions suggested the final figure was likely to be nearer to 1 million people.

Some protesters carried a portrait of Macron doctored up to make him look like a medieval French king, but I have no idea where they’d get the idea that Macron is some sort of monarchical-

Oh, right (Wikimedia Commons)

Transit networks were running at a fraction of their capacity and French electrical workers have gotten involved in the labor action, cutting power to homes in advance of the demonstrations.


The British government has set a hard deadline of December 2020 by which to negotiate a free trade deal with the European Union. The intent, apparently, is to force the EU to move quickly and make major compromises to the UK in order to rush to an agreement. And, you know, I realize that Brexit negotiations were a whole three months ago or whatever, but how is it possible that nobody in London remembers that the EU holds most of the leverage in these negotiations? It is exceedingly unlikely that a full trade deal can be negotiated in the 10 months or so the two sides will have, and that’s without factoring in the US-UK deal Boris Johnson and Donald Trump want to negotiate, which will undoubtedly include provisions that are incompatible with any UK-EU trade agreement. The bottom line is that if push comes to shove it’s not the EU that’s really under pressure to get a deal done.



You’ll be pleased to learn that Jair Bolsonaro’s plan to clear cut the Amazon rain forest and destroy Brazil’s indigenous peoples is proceeding apace:

Deforestation on protected indigenous lands in the Amazon was almost three times higher than the loss of trees in the region as a whole and the highest since 2008, according to a new study based on satellite imagery.

The data from Brazil’s space research institute INPE studied by ISA, a socio-environmental NGO working with indigenous people, shows that between August 2018 and July 2019 deforestation on reservations reached 42,600 hectares.

That represents only 4% of overall loss of forest in the Amazon in the same period (totaling 9,762 square kilometers or 976,200 hectares), but it is a dramatic increase over previous years and the highest since this data was first collected in 2008.

Indigenous areas lost 25,000 hectares of forest in 2018, which was a massive jump from the 11,000 hectares lost in 2017. These figures suggest that 2019 will again see a massive jump in forest loss.


Finally, the Quincy Institute’s Mark Kukis highlights the academic case for US disengagement from the Middle East:

Longstanding political science research on the effects of intervention in conflicts shows that wars tend to last longer when outside players become involved. The logic of this is somewhat counterintuitive – if you want peace, let the war unfold. But it holds true nonetheless. Interventions such as providing weapons, money and troops to support various factions within an armed struggle tend to just worsen the situation by making the conflict more complicated, bloodier and harder to resolve due to a lengthening list of stakeholders. This tendency has been evident in dozens of conflicts around the world since the end of World War II and appears to be holding true for the United States in the Middle East now. No clear-headed observer of the Middle East in recent years would argue that U.S. intervention has had a chilling effect on the region. 

Moreover, what is generally true about intervention by outside powers in internal wars around the world is especially true for the United States in the Middle East, where the people of the region outside Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey tend to view American actions with suspicion or outright hostility. No ongoing conflict in the Middle East can benefit from further U.S. intervention at this point. More actions by Washington in Yemen, Libya, or Syria are likely to reignite cycles of violence that for the moment appear to be winding down. The time has come for the United States to disengage from these conflicts and think about how they can be resolved, not won.