World update: December 3 2019

Stories from Turkey, Afghanistan, Samoa, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

December 3, 1920: The Treaty of Alexandropol ends the Turkish-Armenian War, also known as the “Eastern Front” of the Turkish War of Independence. Turkish nationalists drove Armenian forces out of eastern Anatolia, committing numerous atrocities against Armenian civilians along the way, before forcing the Armenian government to surrender all the Anatolian territory it had occupied under the soon-to-be defunct Treaty of Sèvres. Interestingly, the Armenian government never ratified the treaty, because in the meantime a Bolshevik army invaded Armenia and overthrew it.

December 3, 1971: The Pakistani military undertakes preemptive airstrikes against several Indian military installations, beginning the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, itself the final phase of the Bangladesh Liberation War. India was preparing to enter the war on Bangladesh’s side anyway, so these strikes were preemptive in the true meaning of the term. The war, to put it mildly, was a complete disaster for the Pakistanis, who were forced to surrender a scant 13 days later and had to give up their claims on “East Pakistan” (Bangladesh) while suffering around a third of their military killed, wounded, or captured. The war also represents a Cold War low point for the United States, as the Nixon administration both overestimated Pakistan’s chances of victory and backed Islamabad despite numerous reports of grave atrocities committed by the Pakistani military against East Pakistani civilians.

December 3, 1984: A Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, spews toxic methyl isocyanate gas overnight, resulting in the deaths of between 3800 and 16,000 people and causing injury to at least 558,000 more. Union Carbide maintains that the leak was caused by deliberate sabotage, though Indian courts found several officials at the plant guilty of negligence. The “Bhopal Disaster” remains one of the worst industrial disasters in history and its adverse effects are still being felt by people in that region to the present day. The site remains contaminated, though that’s because plant officials also dumped hazardous materials around the site without taking environmental precautions.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

The UAE chargé d'affaires in Syria, Abdul-Hakim Naimi, praised the “wise leadership” of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday during an event in Syria to celebrate UAE National Day. This otherwise unremarkable confluence of events is made a little more remarkable given that the UAE was once part of the Gulf Arab coalition trying to unseat Assad since 2011. They’ve since abandoned that effort in a major way, going so far as to reopen their embassy in Damascus in December and, clearly, blowing sunshine up Assad’s behind when the opportunity presents itself. The Emiratis feel that their aims—mainly creating daylight between Assad and Iran—can be better achieved with carrots than they can with sticks, a view that Saudi Arabia, among others, seems to be adopting slowly. Assad has, in turn, signaled his desire for better relations with the wealthy Gulf states by, for example, throwing parties for Gulf state holidays.

YEMEN

Yemen may have another separatist movement on its hands. Abdullah bin Essa al-Afar, heir to the throne of the defunct Mahrah Sultanate, has started talking about reviving the family business, so to speak. The Mahrah Sultanate ruled what is today (roughly) eastern Yemen and the archipelago of Socotra from the 15th century until the creation of South Yemen in 1967, though it spent the last century or so of its existence lumped in with several other entities as part a British protectorate. Residents of what is now Yemen’s Mahrah province are increasingly unhappy with the presence of a Saudi occupying force, which is ostensibly there to interdict smuggling routes from Oman via which the Houthis are supposedly receiving Iranian aid. There are strong suspicions that the Saudis are occupying the province because they want to build a pipeline through it to take Saudi oil directly out to the Arabian Sea.

Aside from the Saudi presence, the Mehri people of that region are concerned about their cultural survival. Their language—related to but clearly distinct from Arabic—is in danger of extinction, for example. Afar lives in Oman and almost certainly has Omani support—the Mehri people are also present in significant numbers in Oman’s western Dhofar province, which means both that Oman views eastern Yemen as part of its sphere of influence and that any risk of instability in Mahra is a national security issue for Muscat. The Omanis are presumably not keen on having a Saudi military presence near their western border and may support the threat of secession as a way to force the Saudis to back off.

TURKEY

NATO leaders are in London this week for a summit that, among other things, is commemorating the alliance’s 70th anniversary, and for once Donald Trump isn’t the center of attention. That honor instead goes to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who may have learned from Trump that belligerence pays off in terms of getting NATO members to do what you want, though he has still apparently not learned that Turkey is not the United States. Though Erdoğan has denied that he’s trying to blackmail NATO into supporting his invasion of Syria, that is in fact what he’s doing by threatening to block a new NATO defense plan for Poland and the Baltic States unless the alliance agrees to recognize the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia as a terrorist group.

Erdoğan’s relationships with Turkey’s NATO allies may be at an all-time low, which is really saying something. NATO (mostly British and French) criticism of Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria has enraged the easily-enraged Turkish president, while Turkey’s efforts to seize control of offshore oil and gas deposits that geographically belong to Cyprus (more on this later) have provoked European Union sanctions and have caused fellow NATO member Greece to raise objections. Erdoğan suggested last week that French President Emmanuel Macron may be brain-dead, responding to a comment Macron had made earlier this month about NATO’s “brain-death,” partly over Turkey’s Syrian incursion. In response, Macron on Tuesday accused Turkey of aligning itself “with IS group proxies,” a remark I’m sure Erdoğan will take in stride.

Then there’s the Turkey-US relationship, which is lousy even though, as thin-skinned right-wing egomaniacs, Erdoğan and Trump seem to get along quite well personally. Even if the rest of NATO were willing to declare the YPG a terrorist group, the US would have to block it because the US and YPG have been working together in eastern Syria. There’s also still the issue of Turkey’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defense systems and the still-looming threat of retaliatory US sanctions. Erdoğan may be looking to deal his support for the Poland-Baltic defense plan for firm pledges not to sanction Turkey once the S-400s are fully activated (which will probably be in April). He may also be willing to limit the S-400’s capabilities in some way so as to appease the US and NATO, but in doing so he could risk alienating Russia. The Russians may be flexible on that point, however, because they’re better served having a friend inside NATO than they would be if things were to reach an impasse and Turkey were to leave the organization in a huff.

IRAQ

One of the things we missed while I was away was the resignation, finally, of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. It took over two months for Iraqi protesters to show Abul-Mahdi the door, and he was willing to have his security forces kill around 430 people in a futile attempt to stay in power, but his position finally became untenable on Friday. A day earlier, Iraqi security forces killed 46 more people, most of them in the southern city of Nasiriyah, leading Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to use his Friday sermon to call on Iraqi legislators to withdraw their support for Abdul-Mahdi’s government.

In theory, the Iraqi parliament must now deliberate over a successor to Abdul-Mahdi, but given the carnage to date and the fact that protesters are demanding more fundamental change than can be achieved via a single resignation, it’s difficult to imagine a durable solution to Iraq’s political crisis that doesn’t involve a new election. On the plus side, I guess, the Islamic State has decided to kick back and let the Iraqi government implode on its own. November saw the fewest reported IS attacks in the group’s history. Obviously it’s impossible to know whether the decline is really due to an IS decision to ride out the protests or to a reduction in the group’s capabilities, and the answer won’t become apparent unless/until the protests die down. Five rockets did reportedly hit the Ain al-Asad airbase in Anbar province—where US forces are stationed—on Tuesday, which does have the markings of an IS attack.

LEBANON

Another major political development occurred in Lebanon, where current Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri last week removed himself from consideration for remaining in that job. Hariri resigned amid widespread public protests in late October but stayed on in a caretaker role and has been trying to dictate the terms—which basically amount to the removal of all of his political rivals from the cabinet—under which he would accept reappointment. It now appears there’s agreement among Lebanese leaders to form a new cabinet headed by a businessman named Samir al-Khatib, with Hariri’s blessing. Khatib fits the role of a non-politician, but it remains to be seen whether he’ll be acceptable to protesters and whether he’ll have the latitude to form a government made up of similarly depoliticized cabinet secretaries.

IRAN

The Iranian government is now acknowledging that its security forces have killed some “rioters” during recent anti-government protests in cities across the country. It’s insisting that they were rioters—not protesters or demonstrators—because it’s easier to justify killing rioters. Amnesty International says that the Iranians have killed at least 208 protesters since the unrest began with cuts to gasoline subsidies on November 14. That figure is still probably an undercount since government efforts to suppress reporting on the violence have made it more difficult to collect information.

Six European countries—Belgium, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden—agreed on Saturday to join INSTEX, the “special purpose vehicle” designed by Britain, France, and Germany to avoid US sanctions by conducting trade with Iran (in humanitarian goods only) without using the US dollar. INSTEX hasn’t made a single transaction since it came into existence at the end of January, so it’s unclear whether it really matters that new members have come aboard.

ASIA

AZERBAIJAN

Azerbaijan’s parliament voted on Monday to dissolve itself and hold a new election, as part of a larger process of revamping the Azerbaijani government. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has suggested that both the parliament and the cabinet will be “reorganized” soon in order to bring younger voices into political prominence and maybe soften Aliyev’s hard-edged authoritarian image. Whether this will amount to real political change or just window dressing on a continued dictatorship remains to be seen. Aliyev has taken steps that look like he’s transitioning power to his wife (and vice president) Mehriban Aliyeva, and these other changes may be intended to smooth and secure that transition.

AFGHANISTAN

During a “surprise” Thanksgiving visit to see The Troops in Afghanistan, Donald Trump did make a genuinely surprising announcement—he’s restarting peace talks with the Taliban. Trump famously canceled talks with the Taliban in early September, when they appeared to be on the cusp of an agreement, because Taliban leaders wouldn’t fly to Camp David in order to allow Trump to throw a big victory party for himself. He undoubtedly views ending the war in Afghanistan as one of the keys to securing reelection next year, given that reducing the US presence in Afghanistan was one of the things on which he campaigned in 2016. It seems clear that he will at least try to make a substantial US withdrawal from Afghanistan before the 2020 election, regardless of how much progress has or hasn’t been made in talks with the Taliban.

Trump seemed to insist on Thursday that any peace talks must be accompanied by a ceasefire, a condition the Taliban rejected during the last round of negotiations but that would give Trump the leeway to make a large withdrawal of US forces without looking like he’s capitulating. It’s possible that Trump’s decision to walk away from the talks in September shook the Taliban up enough that they’ll be willing to make more concessions this time around, but it remains to be seen.

KASHMIR

According to the Indian military, Pakistani artillery fire across the line of control in Kashmir on Tuesday killed at least two civilians and wounded seven other people.

INDIA

The New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins looks at the violent Hindu nationalism that has fueled Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political career:

For many, Modi’s reëlection suggested that he had uncovered a terrible secret at the heart of Indian society: by deploying vicious sectarian rhetoric, the country’s leader could persuade Hindus to give him nearly unchecked power. In the following months, Modi’s government introduced a series of extraordinary initiatives meant to solidify Hindu dominance. The most notable of them, along with revoking the special status of Kashmir, was a measure designed to strip citizenship from as many as two million residents of the state of Assam, many of whom had crossed the border from the Muslim nation of Bangladesh decades before. In September, the government began constructing detention centers for residents who had become illegal overnight.

A feeling of despair has settled in among many Indians who remain committed to the secular, inclusive vision of the country’s founders. “Gandhi and Nehru were great, historic figures, but I think they were an aberration,” Prasad, the former Outlook editor, told me. “It’s very different now. The institutions have crumbled—universities, investigative agencies, the courts, the media, the administrative agencies, public services. And I think there is no rational answer for what has happened, except that we pretended to be what we were for fifty, sixty years. But we are now reverting to what we always wanted to be, which is to pummel minorities, to push them into a corner, to show them their places, to conquer Kashmir, to ruin the media, and to make corporations servants of the state. And all of this under a heavy resurgence of Hinduism. India is becoming the country it has always wanted to be.”

MYANMAR

Artillery fire by the Myanmar army in the town of Mrauk U killed at least three civilians—two of them infants—on Monday. The Myanmar military is battling the separatist Arakan Army in Rakhine State, though the Arakan Army says that none of its forces were near Mrauk U on Monday.

CHINA

Donald Trump on Tuesday suggested that he may not negotiate a trade deal with China before the 2020 US presidential election. Of course, Trump said this as part of a stream of consciousness (I use the term loosely) response to reporters’ questions while at the NATO summit in London, and he may have just been thinking (again, loosely) out loud. US and Chinese negotiators have been circling a “phase one” deal that would basically lock in the less contentious aspects of a deal while kicking the can down the road on the harder issues, but even that’s being held up in wrangling over how many tariffs the US would lift on Chinese imports and what Beijing would be obliged to do in return. Trump may have been trying to gain leverage by making it clear that he doesn’t consider himself to be under pressure to cut a deal before the election.

NORTH KOREA

The North Korean government on Tuesday suggested that it will have a “Christmas gift” for the United States, which could either be an exciting promise or a troubling threat depending on how things go this month. The North Koreans want the Trump administration to make some concessions on sanctions to reward Pyongyang for upholding its 2018 moratorium on nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile tests by the end of the year, which suggests that if no concessions are forthcoming they’ll resume testing on one or both of those tracks. They’ve already rejected the idea of another splashy meeting between Trump and Kim Jong-un, arguing that their two previous summits (plus one brief meeting at the DMZ back in June) produced nothing other than a few nice photo ops for Trump.

OCEANIA

SAMOA

The entire Samoan government has shut down due to a measles outbreak that has killed 55 people over the past six weeks. While that may not sound like many, the total population of Samoa is only around 198,000 people so it’s a sizable number of deaths over a relatively short amount of time, the majority (50 of 55) involving children under the age of five. There have been over 3880 confirmed cases of the disease and the goal in shutting public offices down is to deputize all public sector workers as part of a mass vaccination campaign to halt the spread of the disease. Measles is spreading across the Pacific, but Samoa has in particular been the target of an anti-vaccination campaign led by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that may have contributed to a steep decline in vaccination rates among children there.

AFRICA

LIBYA

Aside from occupying northern Syria, Turkey’s other big and internationally controversial project lately has been claiming offshore oil and gas deposits that geographically and by any reasonable standard of international law belong to Cyprus. That project took another step forward last week when the Turkish government signed a maritime border agreement with the government of, uh, Libya. This is very interesting insofar as neither government has explained exactly where they share a maritime border or how it would even be possible for them to share a maritime border when the very large island of Crete, which is part of Greece, sits right smack in between Libya and Turkey.

The Libyan government, fighting a civil war against the “Libyan National Army” led by warlord Khalifa Haftar, seems to have gone along with this because it relies on Turkey for military support (indeed, the maritime agreement was concluded alongside another deal expanding military cooperation between the two countries), but Turkey’s intentions are less clear. One possible explanation is that getting Libya to sign on to an agreement like this gives Turkey’s rather expansive understanding of its own territorial waters a little extra heft with the support of another country.

TUNISIA

Protesters and police clashed over the weekend in the central Tunisian town of Jelma, with 11 people ultimately winding up under arrest and 20 police officers reportedly injured. The demonstrations are the latest in a long line of protests over high unemployment and the weak Tunisian economy, conditions that have especially hurt people in the central part of the country.

BURKINA FASO

Burkinabe soldiers reportedly killed at least 20 militants overnight in defending against two attacks on military outposts in the northern provinces of Sourou and Loroum. At least three soldiers were killed and seven more wounded.

SOUTH SUDAN

The United Nations deployed peacekeepers to South Sudan’s Western Lakes state on Tuesday in an attempt to tamp down an outbreak of inter-communal violence. Upwards of 80 people have been killed since last week in fighting between the communities of Gak and Manuer, started apparently when a man from the Manuer community was killed by a group from Gak.

ETHIOPIA

Delegations from Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan are meeting in Cairo this week for a second round of talks over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project. The GERD sits on the Blue Nile, the larger of the two rivers feeding the Nile, and Egyptian officials are concerned that the process of filling its reservoir could lead to devastating reductions in water flow downriver. Egypt wants the Ethiopians to fill the reservoir slowly, over ten years, to minimize the impact, while the Ethiopians are planning to fill it in six years. The Sudanese government has similar though less intense concerns about water flow, but is also resistant to anything that smacks of Egyptian hegemony over the Nile basin. Water is an existential issue, which makes this a dispute that could easily escalate into war if cooler heads can’t prevail. Representatives from the three countries will meet in Washington next week to “assess” how their talks are going.

NAMIBIA

Namibian President President Hage Geingob won reelection with a bit over 56 percent of the vote in last week’s election. That’s down substantially from the 87 percent he pulled in during the 2014 election, owing to a weak economy and corruption scandals, but still enough to avoid a runoff. In the parliamentary portion of the voting, Geingob’s ruling South West Africa People’s Organization party retained its majority—which was expected—but lost its 2/3 majority, again due to the corruption/bad economy mix.

EUROPE

FINLAND

Finnish Prime Minister Antti Rinne resigned on Tuesday, though he’ll remain on in a caretaker role for the time being. Rinne’s status at the head of his five-party coalition became untenable with the withdrawal of the Center Party over his handling of a recent public sector strike. Therefore Rinne’s resignation was necessary to keep the coalition together. The move shouldn’t lead to a new election as long as the coalition parties manage to agree on a new PM.

GERMANY

Germany’s governing coalition is also hanging together, barely, after the Social Democratic Party changed leaders and adopted a more leftist, less centrist course over the weekend. The party’s new leaders, Norbert Walter-Borjans and Saskia Esken, have been critical of its coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, but they’ve apparently decided not to quit the coalition nor to demand steep concessions for remaining in it. They are demanding a higher minimum wage and increased public investment even if it risks violating the CDU’s “no new debt” policy.

MALTA

The Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, announced on Sunday that he will resign early next year. Muscat has been facing criticism over both the slowness of its investigation into the 2017 murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia and over the fact that a businessman recently charged in connection with the murder has ties to close Muscat associates. The obvious conclusion is that Muscat deliberately slow-rolled the investigation to protect himself, though to be fair there’s no evidence of that as yet, only conjecture.

FRANCE

Not to be outdone by his pal Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (see above), Donald Trump picked his own fight with French President Emmanuel Macron heading into this week’s NATO summit in London. Trump called Macron’s “brain-dead” comments about the NATO alliance—which were mostly about a decline in US leadership in the organization, as “very very nasty,” even though Trump himself has spent most of his presidency saying things that were more critical of the alliance than what Macron said. He toned things down during his face to face meeting with Macron later on—go figure—but the root of his beef isn’t really related to NATO so much as it is Macron’s efforts to tax big tech companies that sock their profits into tax havens to avoid paying standard corporate taxes. Trump has threatened to levy tariffs on billions of dollars worth of French imports in retaliation. The two discussed the issue but don’t seem to have gotten anywhere in terms of finding a compromise.

Macron and Trump in London (White House photo via Wikimedia Commons)

UNITED KINGDOM

A new YouGov poll has Boris Johnson’s Conservatives holding a nine point lead, 42-33, over Labour with nine days left until the UK election. That margin is unchanged from last week though both parties did lose one point each. Another survey by Kantar has the Tories up 44-32, an increase of one point over last week’s 43-32 result.

AMERICAS

URUGUAY

Conservative candidate Luis Lacalle Pou was declared the winner of Uruguay’s presidential election last week, marking an end to the center-left Broad Front’s 15 year old on the presidency. It’s another sign of a regional political shift to the right, though that shift has been challenged electorally in Argentina and by protesters in Chile and Ecuador in recent months.

BRAZIL

In addition to threatening punitive tariffs on French imports, Donald Trump on Monday levied new tariffs on steel and aluminum imported from Brazil and Argentina in response to what the White House has determined is deliberate currency devaluation. The former is surprising, given that Brazil is run by fellow right-wing authoritarian Jair Bolsonaro, and it seems pretty clear that the Brazilian government was caught off guard. This move also goes back on a deal the Trump administration cut with both countries last year in which they agreed to accept import quotas in lieu of tariffs. There is, by the way, no reason to believe either country is deliberately devaluing its currency, as Brazil’s central bank has been lowering interest rates to try to boost a weak economy and Argentina’s economy is a complete mess.

VENEZUELA

The Trump administration on Tuesday blacklisted six oil tankers for the sin of delivering Venezuelan oil to Cuba. The designation means that no US company will be allowed to conduct business that involves those vessels in any way.

GUATEMALA

The administration also blacklisted former Guatemalan communications minister Alejandro Sinibaldi. The United Nations’ International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) found that Sinibaldi ran a money laundering scheme during his time in office from 2012 to 2014. He and his family will be barred from entering the US, and if he has any assets in the US those will presumably be frozen.

DOMINICA

Protesters in Dominica on Tuesday set up roadblocks to disrupt traffic to and from the island nation’s Douglas-Charles Airport. The civil disobedience was organized by the opposition United Workers’ Party, which is trying to force the government to cancel a national election scheduled for Friday and to make electoral reforms that would level the playing field ahead of a rescheduled vote. One demand would bar expatriates from returning home to vote—the opposition claims that the government has offered expats free trips home to buy their support.

UNITED STATES

Finally, Al-Monitor’s Aaron Schaffer reports that several Gulf states are being implicated in a Trump administration investigation into foreign funding at US universities:

Multimillion-dollar donations to US universities by Arab Gulf monarchies and other wealthy Middle East donors are coming under scrutiny as Congress and the Donald Trump administration crack down on Chinese and other foreign influence operations across the country.

Since mid-June, the Department of Education has announced six investigations into some of the nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning for allegedly failing to properly disclose more than $1.3 billion in foreign funding over the past seven years. All six receive or have received funding from Middle Eastern sources, among them the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia as well as the Masdar Institute in Abu Dhabi.

In a letter to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s investigations panel shared with Al-Monitor, the department urges Congress to step up its own investigations. The letter mentions allegations that Qatari donations to US colleges and universities “are made strategically to advance Qatari interests” while its recipients “agree to keep the purposes and amounts of such donations secret.”

The six institutions are Cornell University, Georgetown University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rutgers University, Texas A&M University, and the University of Maryland. In addition to Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the investigation is also focused on funding from China and Russia.