World update: December 7-8 2019

Stories from Lebanon, North Korea, Ukraine, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

December 6, 1240: The Mongols sack Kyiv

December 6. 1904: In his State of the Union message to Congress, US President Teddy Roosevelt issues his “corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine. The Roosevelt Corollary took the mostly defensive Monroe Doctrine, which warned against European intervention in the Americas, and made it offensive, stipulating that while European nations should butt out, the United States was entitled “to the exercise of an international police power” in the Americas. This remained US policy until Franklin Roosevelt introduced his “Good Neighbor Policy,” and then once that brief interlude was over the Corollary became the basis of US policy toward Latin America during much of the Cold War.

December 7, 1941: The Japanese military carries out a massive attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbor, in Hawaii. Over 2400 people were killed in what was intended to be a preemptive strike to ensure that the United States would not interfere with Japanese plans in the Pacific. Of course it had the opposite effect, drawing the United States into World War II.

December 7, 1965: During the Second Vatican Council, Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I issue the Catholic–Orthodox Joint Declaration of 1965. The declaration reversed the mutual excommunications that had been issued by Pope Leo IX and Ecumenical Patriarch Michael I Cerularius in the Great East-West Schism of 1054. The Catholic and Orthodox churches are still in schism, of course, but their relationship has improved considerably since the 11th century.

December 8, 1953: US President Dwight Eisenhower delivers his “Atoms for Peace” speech to the United Nations General Assembly. Eisenhower’s speech, and the program it announced, was meant to focus international attention on the peaceful uses of nuclear power, either as a way to ease fears about nuclear weapons or as cover for the massive US nuclear buildup that followed. Or, hey, why not both? The Atoms for Peace program helped build research reactors in Iran, Israel, and Pakistan, and, hey, only two of those countries eventually acquired nukes so that’s something. They were both US allies, too, so no worries there! Naturally the US is now sanctioning the one that didn’t acquire nukes.

December 8, 1980: Former member of the Beatles John Lennon is shot and killed outside of his home in New York City by Mark David Chapman.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

According to local activists and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights at least 20 people were killed in pro-government airstrikes in Idlib province on Saturday. Most of the strikes over the past day seem to have targeted villages and towns around the city of Maarrat al-Numan, which is the Syrian military’s next target if/when it resumes a full ground offensive in Idlib.

YEMEN

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok told reporters on Sunday that Khartoum has drawn down its troop levels in Yemen from a peak of 15,000 to around 5000. Some of that reduction likely stems from the change in government Sudan experienced this year but it could also be another sign that the Yemen war is inching toward a resolution. Sudan still depends heavily on aid from Saudi Arabia so if the Saudis wanted more Sudanese soldiers involved in their coalition Hamdok would be hard-pressed to turn them down.

According to the New Arab, at least five pro-government foreign fighters, possibly Iranian or at least members of an Iranian-organized militia, were killed Sunday in an airstrike near Albukamal, close to the Iraqi border. There are similarities between this strike and previous attacks in the Syria-Iraq border region that have been attributed to Israel, but there’s no confirmation of that.

IRAQ

The death toll from Friday’s massacre of protesters in Baghdad’s Khilani Square now stands at 25, up from 14. In addition to the killings the attackers demolished a “command post” the protesters had set up in the square. The attack reportedly began after power was cut to the square and lasted for several hours, suggesting some level of planning if not outright collaboration between the still-unnamed gunmen and the Iraqi government. Many protesters as well as a few Iraqi officials seem to be of the belief that the attackers were militia fighters from Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces.

Muqtada al-Sadr, the cleric/militia leader/populist politician whose Sairoon party is the largest single party in the Iraqi parliament, has reportedly begun putting his (unarmed) militia fighters on the streets to protect the demonstrators. Sadr is a frequent participator in anti-government protests over corruption and/or foreign influence in Iraqi politics, though critics might argue he’s more likely to jump in front of an already existing movement than to lead one of his own. That may be what he’s doing here. If Sadr can make himself out to be a leader of this current round of protests that will give him more leverage in negotiations over finding a replacement for outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. Sadr says that his home in Najaf was attacked in a drone strike on Saturday, shortly after the Baghdad massacre, but there were no casualties and Sadr himself was in Iran at the time.

LEBANON

The saga of Lebanese politics took another dramatic turn on Sunday when Samir Khatib, the businessman who had emerged as the apparent consensus pick to replace Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in a new “depoliticized” cabinet, withdrew from the nomination process and said that Lebanon’s Sunni leadership is committed to Hariri remaining as PM. Khatib follows in nearly the exact footsteps of former finance minister Mohammad Safadi, who similarly emerged as a consensus pick to replace Hariri only to withdraw (and take some shots at Hariri in the process) last month. Lebanese leaders have now decided to postpone Monday’s consultation session, in which Khatib’s nomination was expected to get final approval, for another week.

All of this soap opera drama is almost certainly being engineered by Hariri himself. The PM wants to lead a “technocratic” government, which in Lebanese politician-speak means “leave me in office but remove all of my political rivals from their posts.” Hariri’s rivals have, for reasons that should be obvious, refused to acquiesce. So Hariri is publicly refusing to remain as PM—he quit in late October and announced late last month that he did not want to be reappointed—while working behind the scenes to make it impossible to replace him. He’s able to play this game because of Lebanon’s sectarian political system, which requires that the PM be a Sunni and therefore gives Hariri—still the preeminent Sunni politician in the country—an effective veto over the selection process. If I’m right, then the goal is to create such an intractable impasse that the rest of Lebanon’s major political actors will beg Hariri to keep his post and give him whatever he demands.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli military struck multiple targets in Gaza on Sunday after somebody fired three rockets out of the enclave. No group has claimed responsibility for the rocket fire, but when it doubt Israeli officials blame Hamas for, at a minimum, not preventing these sorts of incidents.

EGYPT

Militants attacked a police checkpoint in northern Sinai on Sunday, killing one conscript and wounding two others. At least one militant was reportedly killed in the attack. The Islamic State’s Sinai branch was presumably responsible.

OMAN

Omani Sultan Qaboos headed to Belgium over the weekend for “medical checks.” There’s no indication that Qaboos is in medical jeopardy, but he is 79 and probably has colon cancer, so any health-related reports are noteworthy.

IRAN

The United States and Iran exchanged prisoners on Saturday, with the US releasing an Iranian scientist, Massoud Soleimani, who was facing trial for alleged sanctions violations, and the Iranians releasing Xiyue Wang, a Princeton University grad student they arrested in 2016 on spying charges. The Swiss government, which is the guarantor for US interests in Tehran since the US has no formal ties with the Iranian government, helped broker the swap, and according to Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson was involved in the negotiations. The hope, as it usually is in these cases, is that US and Iranian officials can build off of this success toward deeper diplomatic engagement, though that may be overly optimistic.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

Peace talks between US and Taliban representatives resumed in Qatar on Saturday for the first time since Donald Trump pulled the plug on them back in September. Statements from the two sides pointed to what could be a serious problem with this new round of negotiations. A US official said that the “focus of discussion will be reduction of violence that leads to intra-Afghan negotiations and a ceasefire.” The Taliban, on the other hand, said that the negotiations picked up “from where they were broken off.” The thing is, where the talks were broken off they were not focused on reducing violence nor on intra-Afghan negotiations, and the Taliban had rejected a ceasefire. If the US is going to insist on a ceasefire and direct talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government, it’s unclear whether or why the Taliban would be willing to have those discussions when it wasn’t just a few months ago.

PAKISTAN

An explosion near a mosque in Lahore on Saturday killed at least one person and wounded four others. There may be a mechanical explanation for the blast, but the possibility of a bombing can’t be ruled out.

CHINA

Hong Kong saw its largest public demonstration in several weeks on Sunday, when at least 180,000 (the police estimate) and perhaps more than 800,000 (the organizers’ estimate) turned out for what was mostly a peaceful march. The Civil Human Rights Front organized the demonstration to commemorate six months since these protests really began to expand into a large-scale movement (that’s Monday) as well as Human Rights Day (that’s Tuesday). The size of the demonstration was particularly noteworthy since the protest movement has been dying down over the past several weeks as the focus moved toward university campuses that were under siege from Hong Kong police. With those situations now resolved, Sunday’s march showed that the movement still has widespread support.

NORTH KOREA

North Korean state media reported Sunday on some sort of major test that had been successfully conducted at the Sohae satellite launch facility. It’s unclear what that test involved, but given that they didn’t launch anything it was probably a rocket engine test. The US government has said that Pyongyang promised to close down Sohae, though US and North Korean negotiators tend to offer wildly conflicting versions of what they’ve negotiated and who’s agreed to what. It is a sensitive facility because there can be some overlap between space launch technology and ballistic missile technology, though that overlap can be exaggerated and is frequently exaggerated by the US government when referring to Iran and/or North Korea. Satellite imagery had showed activity at Sohae several days ago that would be consistent with a static engine test.

That said, because there is some overlap between space launchers and missiles, Sunday’s…well, whatever it was, could be a preview of some much more provocative test early next year. The North Koreans have threatened to resume their nuclear and/or missile testing in earnest if there’s no progress in negotiations with the US by the end of this year. In response to the report, Donald Trump warned via Twitter that he and Kim Jong-un might not be special best friends anymore if Kim is just going to keep hurting him like this. The test came a day after North Korean United Nations ambassador Kim Song issued a statement saying that “denuclearization is already gone out of the negotiating table,” which needless to say is not a great sign.

AFRICA

LIBYA

The US military now believes that a drone it lost over western Libya last month was in fact shot down, possibly by the “Libyan National Army” but more likely by Russian mercenaries working for the LNA. US Africa Command isn’t accusing the Russians of deliberately targeting a US drone but they are demanding that the Russian government return the wreckage. The line between Russian mercenaries and the Russian military is often blurred as Moscow uses private military contractors to supply forces in areas where the Russian government wants to intervene while retaining some deniability.

Meanwhile, the Brega Petroleum Marketing Company announced on Saturday that it has suspended operations in Tripoli due to heavy fighting and shelling in the Libyan capital. The influx of Russian mercenaries has bolstered the LNA’s previously stalled offensive against the Libyan government in Tripoli and the fighting is now regularly reaching the center of the city where it was largely confined to the southern outskirts before the Russians arrived.

ALGERIA

Algeria’s presidential election will almost certainly proceed as scheduled on Thursday despite efforts by protesters to derail it. But it’s likely to be a sparsely attended event. Judging from the attendance and reception that the five candidates who will be on the ballot have received at their campaign events, plus the way the public has responded to Friday’s presidential debate, there’s little to no enthusiasm for any of them. All are viewed as extensions of a ruling elite that many/most Algerians want to see excised entirely before any election is held.

EUROPE

BELARUS

Over 1000 protesters turned out in Minsk on Saturday as Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko was meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi about strengthening ties between their two countries. Expressions of dissent are rare in Belarus, which Lukashenko rules pretty tightly, but many Belarusians are nervous about the possibility of something approaching full integration between their country and Russia, which would look a lot more like annexation than actual integration. At the fringey-but-maybe-not-that-fringey end of the spectrum, there’s speculation that Putin could set himself up as leader of a greatly empowered Union State, the loose confederation that Belarus and Russia entered in the 1990s, when his presidential term runs out in 2024.

There’s no word on what, if anything, Lukashenko and Putin decided in Sochi. Lukashenko has insisted he won’t agree to anything that brings Belarus under Russian control while Moscow has taken steps (like cutting energy subsidies) to “encourage” Lukashenko to consider greater integration.

UKRAINE

Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy will meet for the first time in Paris on Monday as they, along with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, try to negotiate an end to Ukraine’s civil war. There is clearly some nervousness in Ukraine about what might happen when the political neophyte Zelenskiy sits down with Putin, and thousands of people demonstrated in Kyiv on Sunday calling on their president not to concede anything to the Russian leader.

The contours of a settlement are already in place in the form of the 2015 Minsk Agreement, which calls for an end to the fighting along with a regional election in eastern Ukraine and a new autonomous status for the region. But disagreements remain over the technical details as well as the order in which Minsk’s terms should be implemented, and the Ukrainian public may not be amenable to implementing the deal at all. Some Ukrainian officials have suggested they might wall off the Donbas if these peace talks fail to end the conflict, though to put it mildly that seems impractical. Nothing final is going to be determined on Monday but if the session goes badly it could quash any chance for an end to the conflict for the foreseeable future.

FINLAND

The Finnish government has a new prime minister—former transportation minister Sanna Marin, who at 34 will be the youngest PM in the world when she officially takes office as well as the youngest PM in Finland’s history. Marin was chosen as the new leader of Finland’s Social Democratic Party, making her the new leader of the five party governing coalition. She replaces Antti Rinne, who resigned on Tuesday after one of those parties, the Center Party, said it could no longer support him as PM.

SPAIN

Madrid is hosting the COP25 climate summit, which will really kick into high gear in the next few days. Apart from some of the accompanying protests there’s little of note that seems to be happening—which is to be expected of a conference whose agenda mostly revolves around implementing the 2015 Paris Agreement, whose goals were woefully inadequate when they were drawn up and now look impossible to reach.

Climate protesters in Madrid on December 6 (Malopez 21 via Wikimedia Commons)

Some of the presentations are at least highlighting the extent of the problem:

Oxygen in the oceans is being lost at an unprecedented rate, with “dead zones” proliferating and hundreds more areas showing oxygen dangerously depleted, as a result of the climate emergency and intensive farming, experts have warned.

Sharks, tuna, marlin and other large fish species were at particular risk, scientists said, with many vital ecosystems in danger of collapse. Dead zones – where oxygen is effectively absent – have quadrupled in extent in the last half-century, and there are also at least 700 areas where oxygen is at dangerously low levels, up from 45 when research was undertaken in the 1960s.

Is that bad? It seems bad.

UNITED KINGDOM

A wave of new polls were released over this final weekend before the UK’s December 12 election. In no particular order other than the order in which they entered my RSS feed, here you go:

  • Savanta ComRes has the Conservative Party ahead of Labour 42-36, narrowed from a 42-32 lead a week ago

  • Opinium has the Tories ahead 46-31, unchanged from the previous week

  • Savanta ComRes, this time for the Sunday Telegraph, has the Tories up 41-33, narrowed from 42-32 earlier in the week

  • Datapraxis for the Sunday Times has the Tories winning a 38 seat majority, down from 48 two weeks ago

  • YouGov for the Sunday Times has the Conservatives ahead 43-33, up one from that poll’s previous 42-33 lead

  • Deltapoll for the Mail on Sunday has the Conservatives up 44-33, narrowed from 45-32 in its previous survey

  • BMG for the Independent has the Tories leading 41-32, up from a 39-33 lead in last week’s survey

  • Survation has the Conservatives ahead 45-31, widened from a 43-33 lead a week ago

Overall there does seem to have been some movement away from the Tories and toward Labour, though with only a few days to go before the election the possible outcomes are probably down to either a Conservative majority or a hung parliament. Polling indicates that many voters remain either undecided or persuadable, which is unusual this close to the election, and the polls themselves can’t account for the possibility of tactical voting (e.g., that a Green or Liberal Democrat supporter might vote for a Labour candidate to keep a Tory candidate from winning the seat). And of course there’s a reasonable chance that all of these polls have been wrong this whole time, though that could cut either way conceivably. The point is, there’s a lot that’s still up in the air.

AMERICAS

BOLIVIA

Former Bolivian President Evo Morales has left Mexico for Cuba on what the Mexican government says is a temporary visit (perhaps for a medical exam) but may in fact be a permanent relocation. The Mexican government was happy to give Morales a lifeline out of Bolivia but given that he’s not exactly part of Donald Trump’s mutual admiration club it would be untenable for them to allow him to remain in Mexico indefinitely. Things would get particularly awkward if Morales were to attempt a political revival in Bolivia, as he’s suggested he might. The Cuban government would be more amenable to something like that, although there’s some speculation he could wind up in Argentina eventually. I’m skeptical that the new Argentine government is going to want to invite discord with Washington, but I suppose we’ll see.

BRAZIL

The spread of extremist Christianity among violent gangs, abetted by right-wing politicians, has been wreaking havoc on religious minorities in Brazil—especially practitioners of African-influenced faiths:

As evangelicalism reconfigures the spiritual map in Latin America’s largest country, attracting tens of millions of adherents, winning political power and threatening Catholicism’s long-held dominance, its most extreme adherents — often affiliated with gangs — are increasingly targeting Brazil’s non-Christian religious minorities.

Priests have been killed. Children have been stoned. An elderly woman was seriously injured. Death threats and taunts are common. Gangs are unfurling the flag of Israel, a nation seen by some evangelicals as necessary to bringing about the return of Christ.

Candomblé — like Santería and Voodoo, rooted in the belief systems brought to Latin America by enslaved people from West Africa — is vanishing from entire communities.

“Some of them call themselves ‘Jesus drug dealers,’ creating a unique identity,” said Gilbert Stivanello, commander of the Rio police department’s crimes of intolerance unit. “They carry weapons and sell drugs, but feel entitled to forbid African-influenced religions by stating that they are related to the devil.”

UNITED STATES

Finally, the FBI is reportedly treating Friday’s shooting by a Saudi military officer named Mohammed Saeed Alshamran at Naval Air Station Pensacola as a terrorist incident. Juan Cole compiles the mounting evidence that the shooter was indeed a terrorist:

Eric Schmitt, Frances Robles and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs at the NYT reported that Alshamran watched videos of mass shootings with Saudi friends at a dinner party the Wednesday before the Friday shooting. Then a terrorist watchdog site announced that it had found his Twitter account, on which he had posted a quote from the 9/11 mastermind Usama Bin Laden and gave evidence of hating Americans. He was enraged by the US wars in the Middle East and by the American complicity in dispossessing the Palestinians at the hands of Israel. Given that he was 21, his main experience of US wars was the rollback of ISIL in Iraq and Syria in alliance with Shiites and leftist Kurds, neither of them a favorite among Saudi conservatives.

If these reports are true, the shooting in some ways reflected the continuing contradictions in US Middle East policy, where Trump is determined to crush the Palestinians completely and let the far far right Likud Party run riot, but then wants to buddy up with Saudi Arabia, one of the more conservative societies in the world full of 20 million firm supporters of Palestinian rights. Israeli occupation of all of Jerusalem was given as one of his reasons for the 9/11 attacks by Usama Bin Laden.

More disturbing, it seems at least some of the other Saudi trainees at the base assisted Alshamran in his attack, which suggests this wasn’t the act of a lone radicalized individual but of a terrorist cell within the Saudi military.

The Trump administration is reviewing the procedures by which foreign military personnel—and perhaps especially Saudis—are brought to the US for training.