World update: December 19 2019

Stories from Lebanon, Russia, Chile, and more

This will be our final World update of 2019. I’ll still be around here and there, especially if something major happens, but in terms of regular operations we’ll be resuming on January 7. So let me take this opportunity to thank you all for making 2019 a great first year at Substack and to wish you and yours Happy Holidays. See you in 2020!

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

December 18, 1499: The first Alpujarras Rebellion begins

December 18, 1878: Sheikh Jassim bin Mohammed Al Thani succeeds his father as ruler of the Qatari peninsula. Jassim is considered the founder of the modern state of Qatar. For a time he held appointment as the Ottoman Kaymakam (sub-governor) of Qatar before asserting autonomy (if not outright independence). He then defeated an Ottoman force (“army” would be overstating it) of around 200-300 men in the 1893 Battle of al-Wajbah, which confirmed Qatari autonomy. The date of his accession is commemorated as Qatar’s National Day.

December 18, 2005: The four year Chadian Civil War begins when the rebel group Rally for Democracy and Freedom attacks the town of Adré near the Sudanese border. The rebels, backed by Sudan and its Janjaweed militia, were eventually defeated by the Chadian government of President Idriss Déby, and an agreement between Déby and then-Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir ended the conflict in January 2010.

December 19, 1946: The Battle of Hanoi marks the start of the 1946-1954 First Indochina War. The battle began when Việt Minh forces bombed Hanoi’s power plant and under cover of darkness began attacking French forces in the city. The Việt Minh eventually had to withdraw in the face of superior French numbers in February 1947, though of course they would eventually win the war. The outcome was a partition of Vietnam into northern and southern states—which ended when North Vietnam won the Vietnam War—and the ouster of French forces from the region.

December 19, 1984: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang sign the Sino-British Joint Declaration in Beijing. The declaration set July 1, 1997, as the date upon which the British government would turn control of Hong Kong, including Kowloon and the New Territories, over to the Chinese government.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Turkish officials say that a car bombing in the northeast Syrian town of Tal Halaf on Thursday killed five people. They’re blaming the Kurdish YPG militia though the Islamic State could have been responsible.

In Malaysia for the Kuala Lumpur Summit, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told the assembled leaders that “50,000 people are once again coming from Idlib” to Turkey. It’s unclear what he’s talking about. Erdoğan made the comment while complaining about the criticism he’s taken over invading northeastern Syria, as well as his plans to displace the local population by settling a million or more refugees from other parts of Syria in the enclave his military now controls, so maybe he was just riffing. On the other hand, between the regular airstrikes and the approach of what promises to be a very difficult winter, it would not be surprising if more displaced Idlib residents were deciding to make a go at the Turkish border.

YEMEN

The Yemeni government and the Houthis exchanged prisoners along the front lines of their conflict in Yemen’s Taiz province on Thursday. The Houthis released 75 captives in return for 60 of their own people being released by the government. It’s unclear whether this was part of a broader negotiation or an ad hoc exchange but either way these are the kinds of small, confidence building steps that can become the foundation of a larger peace process.

IRAQ

Iraqi political leaders may push their deadline to select a new prime minister back to December 22 thanks to some legal sleight of hand, but it remains exceedingly unlikely that they’ll be able to agree on somebody by then. If they can’t come to some arrangement then a new election would seem to be inevitable, but on that front the Iraqi parliament has been unable to pass electoral reforms that are one of the main demands of the protesters who ultimately forced ex-PM Adel Abdul-Mahdi to resign. Any election held under the current electoral law will probably be viewed as illegitimate by the protesters.

LEBANON

As expected, former education minister Hassan Diab was indeed nominated to be Lebanon’s new prime minister on Thursday. It did not, at least immediately, go over very well with the protesters in the streets:

But within minutes of the announcement, protesters in downtown Beirut began chanting for Diab’s removal. Sunni demonstrators around the country poured onto the streets to burn tires and block roads. “Diab, get out” protesters chanted. “All of them means all of them.”

Diab will now begin the process of forming a cabinet, and this is where things get interesting. While current Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri hasn’t derailed Diab’s candidacy, his Future Movement party says it will not be part of the new government. Diab is close to Hezbollah and clearly has the approval of the Maronite Free Patriotic Movement, so it looks like he’ll be governing with the support of only one of Lebanon’s two main political factions, the March 8 Alliance. He should have the votes in parliament to take office, but the way this has all shaken out is unusual for Beirut. Lebanese governments, especially recently, tend to be of the national unity variety, and this is not that. Moreover, Diab’s nomination is very nearly a subversion of Lebanon’s quota-based power-sharing system. The office of PM is reserved for Sunnis, and while Diab is a Sunni he’s been chosen by Hezbollah and ratified by the FPM, so he’s a Sunni who wasn’t really picked by the Sunni political leadership.

In general, then, Diab’s appointment seems to signify a move toward more partisan governance—which may be a good thing, in the long run, if it breaks Lebanon’s cycle of do-nothing unity arrangements. But it’s a risky move. It’s also risky in that Diab could be labeled internationally (the US will almost certainly try to make sure he is) as “Hezbollah’s man.” Given Hezbollah’s reputation in the West that will undoubtedly impact the country’s chances of accessing international aid and credit.

On the other hand, the whole purpose of Lebanon’s recent political upheaval has been to form a “technocratic” cabinet (in other words, one not full of the usual ultra-political figures), which at least in theory would be anti-partisan. And the thing is, Diab (at least on paper) is about as “technocratic” a prime minister as you could reasonably expect. Yes he’s a former education minister, but that’s not an overly political gig usually, and mostly he’s spent his career working as an engineer and academic. There’s also nothing in his background that should raise any red flags in the West to anybody who isn’t triggered by the word “Hezbollah.” So who knows how this is really going to go.

The funny coda here is that Hariri had been cleverly maneuvering so that he, a very political prime minister, would lead a cabinet of non-political ministers. But it seems instead that he’s cleverly maneuvered himself out of a job.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli warplanes attacked Gaza on Thursday after a rocket was fired out of the enclave overnight. It’s unclear who fired the rocket. The Israeli strikes targeted a Hamas military site. So far, at least, there have been no reports of casualties.

SAUDI ARABIA

A US investigation into the September attacks on two Saudi oil facilities has determined that the drones used in the attack came from the north. This is being used to bolster claims that Iran was responsible. The wreckage apparently looks similar to Iranian drone models and there’s evidence that the drones traveled over an area northwest of the targets. None of this proves that Iran was behind the attack but it is consistent with the theory.

IRAN

The Trump administration on Thursday sanctioned two Iranian judges for, as the Treasury Department put it, their involvement “in show trials in which journalists, attorneys, political activists, and members of Iran’s ethnic and religious minority groups were penalized for exercising their freedom of expression and assembly and sentenced to lengthy prison terms, lashes, and even execution.” As with most of these types of sanctions the effect is mostly symbolic, unless these two judges had assets in the US by some unlikely turn of events. They will be barred from using international banks so that may have some material effect.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

With peace talks back underway, albeit haltingly, the Taliban are on something of a media blitz to try to change their reputation. One of their key talking points seems to be the work they did to fight the Islamic State—and on that particular issue they have a point:

But it was not American or Afghan military efforts that booted the Islamic State from this area, Taliban commanders said. The Islamic State posed an existential threat to the Taliban by recruiting fighters disaffected by their leaders’ decision to engage in peace talks, so commanders called in a surge of Taliban forces from southern Afghanistan to aid in the push.

“We want the world to know us for more than just killing,” said Saied, the Taliban commander. “We are also fighting terrorists.”

American and Afghan government officials concede the Taliban’s contributions to the fight against the Islamic State were significant.

The Taliban “were catastrophically successful” in the fight against the Islamic State, the U.S. official said.

Despite the U.S. and Afghan ground and air operations, “the Islamic State was able to recede deeper into those mountains and just wait until we leave and then just reassume that territory,” the official said. “Unlike us, the Taliban didn’t need to return to bases and they didn’t need to return to official positions in Jalalabad or other places.”

PAKISTAN

The Trump administration has decided to bring Pakistan back into the International Military Education and Training Program, from which Donald Trump himself, by tweet of course, suspended Islamabad almost two years ago. Trump’s intent, to the extent he had one, was to force the Pakistani government to do a better job tackling Islamist groups that operate on its soil. It’s unclear what’s changed in that respect, but it is clear that Trump had a sit down with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and they seemed to get along with one another. Trump doesn’t really know anything about policy but he does like to do solids for his buddies, so there you go. Congress could still block this step but that seems unlikely.

INDIA

More protests over India’s new citizenship law left at least two people dead in the southern city of Mangaluru on Thursday. Both were reportedly shot, presumably by police though that’s not confirmed.

Indian authorities have stepped up their efforts to suppress these protests. They’re arresting prominent government critics, they’ve expanded an internet blackout to include parts of New Delhi as well as several other cities, and in some regions local governments have limited or even outright banned public demonstrations. While it’s been hard to get a bead on just how unpopular the citizenship measure is, the breadth of these protests has been one sign that—at least in the cities—it’s pretty unpopular. Growing concerns about the direction of the country under Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government are beginning to spill out into the streets on a large scale.

MALAYSIA

Goldman Sachs is reportedly close to a $2 billion payout to settle the Justice Department’s investigation into its role in the looting of Malaysia’s 1MDB sovereign wealth fund:

The Wall Street bank is said to be formulating a deal under which its Asian subsidiary, rather than the parent company, would pay a multibillion-dollar fine and admit guilt for having allegedly turned a blind eye while $4.5bn was looted from its client, Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund, 1MDB.

The deal would also involve oversight from an independent monitor that would help reform the bank’s compliance rules, the Wall Street Journal reported.

The settlement package would end the US justice department’s investigation into Goldman Sachs’ role as an underwriter and arranger of bond sales for the wealth fund, totalling $6.5bn.

AFRICA

LIBYA

The Libyan government has ratified its new military cooperation agreement with Turkey. That doesn’t mean much at the moment but it does potentially bring us closer to a scenario wherein Turkey sends military forces to Libya.

ALGERIA

Abdelmadjid Tebboune officially became Algeria’s new president on Thursday, just a week after his big win in a very sparsely attended election. Now he gets to lead a nation full of people who for the most part didn’t vote for him and don’t believe he was legitimately elected. That should go well. As his first act, Tebboune named an interim prime minister—diplomat Sabri Boukadoum, who has been (and still is) serving as Algeria’s foreign minister.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

A gunman attacked the headquarters of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in Moscow on Thursday, killing at least one agency employee before being killed (well, the Russians are saying “neutralized” but that probably means killed) by FSB security. Reports say that at least five people were hurt, some seriously. The shooter and his motives are as yet unknown but the incident coincided with a speech by Vladimir Putin and there’s a good chance that was intentional.

UKRAINE

The European Union, Russia, and Ukraine finalized a new gas deal on Thursday that will go into effect on January 1. In principle the deal will keep Russian gas flowing through pipelines across Ukraine, even as Moscow pursues two projects—Nord Stream 2 under the Baltic Sea and TurkStream under the Black Sea—that will enable it to deliver gas to Europe without going through Ukraine. The agreement should also pave the way for a new deal for Russia to resume selling gas to Ukraine (which it hasn’t done since 2015), though further talks are going to try to work out those details.

UNITED KINGDOM

Talks on restoring Northern Ireland’s home rule have faltered and will probably be suspended until January. Both the UK and the Irish government seem to be blaming the Democratic Unionist Party for the breakdown in talks but it’s unclear why. Meanwhile, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is committed to holding another referendum on Scottish independence even though UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson seems equally committed to not allowing it. It’s entirely unclear how she plans to get around what seems like a pretty insurmountable roadblock. Sturgeon has said that she doesn’t plan to organize an unofficial referendum a la the 2017 Catalan independence referendum, and given how that worked out it’s hard to fault her.

Johnson and Sturgeon meeting in Edinburgh in July (UK government via Wikimedia Commons)

AMERICAS

CHILE

The Chilean Congress voted on Thursday to go forward with a referendum on the country’s 1980 constitution, a step that could help put the Augusto Pinochet era finally in Chile’s rearview mirror. The vote will be held in April and will ask voters to determine whether the constitution should be replaced and then, if so, whether its replacement should be drawn up by the existing congress or a newly elected assembly. Polling has found that over 80 percent of Chileans want a new constitution and around 60 percent would prefer a separate constitutional assembly.

BRAZIL

The president of Brazil’s Supreme Federal Court, Dias Toffoli, gave an interview earlier this week in which he said some fairly stunning things about the country’s extensive “Car Wash” (Lava Jato) corruption investigation:

Last Monday (16), the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper published an interview with Supreme Court Chief Justice Dias Toffoli, which deserves to be read by everyone.

The headline reads: “Toffoli says Lava Jato destroyed businesses and the Public Prosecutors Office didn’t act transparently.” In other words, the Chief Justice admited what we have been saying for a long time.

The Lava Jato investigation was not effectively created to fight corruption – it was created to implement a policy based on the interests of international capital in Brazil, especially US interests. The fight against corruption is something that has to be conducted by the judicial, legislative and executive branches of government together, and primarily by society as a whole. This fight has to be permanent because corruption, unfortunately, is an integral part of the capitalist society that we live in where commodities, money and property matter more than people. The fight against corruption should never be confused with a fight against the business sector, whether public or private. But this is exactly what happened in Brazil under the guise of a fight against corruption.

The Intercept has uncovered plenty of evidence of corruption in the Car Wash prosecutions with the goal of undermining the Brazilian left and ending the presidential hopes of Workers’ Party leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. But to hear a prominent Brazilian judicial official confirm that the investigation was politically crooked is to say the least a noteworthy development.

UNITED STATES

The House of Representatives voted on Thursday to approve the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). The trade deal, which will replace NAFTA, will likely be approved by the Senate next month.

Finally, in the wake of the Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” exposé, former US diplomat Elizabeth Shackelford argues that it’s up to the US public to demand more from its elected leaders:

Congress has made clear it isn’t moved by these revelations of dishonesty and waste in our war-making. On the same day The Post released this bombshell report, Congress’s Armed Services committees released their compromise bill on defense spending, increasing the Pentagon’s budget once again by $22 billion, to a total of $738 billion. The number was particularly unseemly given news of Trump cutting food stamps for 750,000 people to save a mere $1.1 billion next year.

Rather than outrage or demands for accountability, our elected leaders carried on with business as usual. It’s clear Congress won’t care unless we make them, and this will require a shift in our national attitude.