World update: February 11, 2020

Stories from Syria, Afghanistan, El Salvador, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

February 10, 1258: The Mongols sack Baghdad and topple the Abbasid Caliphate.

February 10, 1972: Ras Al Khaimah becomes the seventh and final Gulf state to join the United Arab Emirates, roughly two months after the UAE and its member states gained independence.

February 11, 1979: The Iranian Revolution ends with the surrender of royalist forces. Commemorated in Iran as the climax of the “Fajr Decade,” an annual celebration marking the ten days from the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to the end of the revolution.

February 11, 1990: Nelson Mandela is released from South Africa’s Victor Verster Prison after serving 27 years for resisting the apartheid government. Mandela was a key figure in the negotiations to dismantle the apartheid regime and in 1994 was elected overwhelmingly as South Africa’s first truly democratically elected president.

February 11, 2011: After over two weeks of protests, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigns, becoming the second Arab leader to step down as a result of the Arab Spring movement after Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Egypt underwent a transition to a democratic election in 2012, all of which was undone by the 2013 military coup that installed current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least, the Syrian government and its allies have secured control over the entire M5 highway for the first time since 2012. The strategically vital M5, which connects Aleppo with the city of Hama and from there on to Homs and then Damascus, has been the main target in the government’s ongoing offensive in northwestern Syria. The advance came as Russian-Turkish talks on establishing a ceasefire in northwestern Syria fizzled out and on a day in which the Syrian rebels reportedly shot down a government helicopter near the village of Nerab, in Idlib province. And a government airstrike on Idlib city killed at least seven people and possibly several more than that. The Turkish military claims that a rebel counterattack near the town of Saraqib has, with Turkish support, killed at least 51 pro-government fighters, but there’s no indication it’s made any territorial gains and indeed nobody else is even saying that it happened.

IRAQ

Incredibly, Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr suggested on Tuesday that he might flip-flop again and withdraw his support from Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Allawi. Sadr was for Allawi before he was against him, then for him again, then…well, I’ve lost track, to be honest. His “blue hat” militia fighters killed several protesters in Najaf last week when they attempted to break up a protest camp in support of Allawi. Sadr posted a statement online in which he wrote that “partisan and sectarian pressure” was causing him to rethink his support for Allawi, which is inscrutable and probably on purpose. As with everything else Sadr does, he’s made this threat because somehow he thinks it will empower him politically. Sadr’s statement also said he was dissolving the “blue hats,” though I highly doubt he’s actually doing away with his militia. He’s probably rebranding after the Najaf incident.

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper told reporters ahead of a NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels that he plans to ask alliance members to pick up more slack for the United States in combating the Islamic State in Iraq and in the Middle East more generally, in missions like defending Gulf Arab states from potential attacks. Several NATO diplomats have suggested that the alliance is willing to play a larger role in Iraq, especially in terms of training Iraqi security forces. But as to the rest of US policy in the region, there’s a weird thing happening here where the rest of NATO is expected to act as Washington’s back up band even if other members of the alliance don’t agree with, say, maximum pressure against Iran. NATO members may balk at the idea of contributing forces to any operation that could potentially involve combat against somebody other than IS.

LEBANON

According to Reuters, Hezbollah has stepped in for the departed Qassem Soleimani in organizing and guiding Iraq’s various pro-Iran militias. I wanted to acknowledge this report, but we won’t be doing any more than that because it’s extremely thinly sourced. If you decide to read it, and there are some potentially interesting details in there, I would bear the sourcing in mind.

The government of Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab won a parliamentary confidence vote on Tuesday in the form of a bill authorizing “painful” emergency measures to address the country’s looming financial crisis. Those “painful” measures will likely involve some level of austerity, hence the “pain,” though it’s still not clear just how much. Diab’s government is likely to consult with the International Monetary Fund over how to pay bonds that are maturing this year, but it may not be willing to do a full IMF bailout because of the level of austerity that would entail. Protesters, who do not seem to have any confidence in Diab’s government despite what parliament says, battled police near the parliament building in Beirut ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addressed the United Nations Security Council on Tuesday to express his opposition to the Kushner Accords, referring to the Palestinian “state” that might one day come to exist under the Accords as “Swiss cheese.” Polling indicates that 94 percent of Palestinians agree with Abbas in rejecting the “peace” plan. A resolution condemning the Accords that was supposed to accompany Abbas’s speech was withdrawn by its co-sponsors, Tunisia and Indonesia, apparently after Kushner threatened the Tunisian government. A much weakened second draft of that resolution was also withdrawn when the US began pressuring other council members to oppose it.

SAUDI ARABIA

Diplomatic efforts to heal the breach between Saudi Arabia and Qatar have apparently broken down, according to Reuters. This story is also thinly sourced but there has been a lack of apparent movement in the Saudi-Qatari relationship after a number of small developments toward the end of last year. The Qataris were unwilling to subordinate their foreign policy to Riyadh’s, which the Saudis demanded as a precondition for serious talks on ending its over two year long blockade of Qatar. A decision by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to snub December’s Gulf Cooperation Council summit in Saudi Arabia, which denied Riyadh a splashy foreign policy success, may have been both effect and cause of the breakdown in talks.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

A suicide bomber killed at least six people and wounded at least 12 more in an attack on the Marshal Fahim Military Academy in Kabul early Tuesday. Nobody has yet claimed responsibility, and both IS and the Taliban have carried out attacks in the Afghan capital in the past.

Whether it was responsible for Tuesday’s attack or not, the Taliban appears to be circling another peace deal with the United States. The New York Times is reporting that Donald Trump has “conditionally approved” such a deal, contingent on the Taliban proving “their commitment to a durable reduction of violence over a test period of about seven days later this month.” The negotiations aren’t fully concluded yet but “commitment to a durable reduction of violence” sure does pack a lot of weasel words into a short phrase, which could be a red flag. But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who was not especially wowed by the deal the Taliban and the US almost reached in September (before Trump quashed it), seems pleased with whatever Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told him about this deal over the phone on Tuesday.

Assuming the negotiations reach a final deal, and the Taliban does express its deep wish for goodwill or whatever, the next steps will involve the beginnings of a US troop withdrawal (the parameters of which are as yet unknown) and presumably direct talks between the Taliban and Ghani’s government.

INDONESIA

The Indonesian government says it is not going to repatriate any of the estimated 700 Indonesian nationals who have wandered off to join up with the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq, or some other part of the world. So it’s not only European governments who are trying to foist their IS problems off on somebody else.

PHILIPPINES

Rodrigo Duterte on Tuesday made good on his threat to end Manila’s Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States. Duterte issued that threat a couple of weeks ago in response to the State Department’s decision to revoke a visa for his former police chief, probably because of the police chief’s involvement in Duterte’s ultra-violent vigilante war on drugs. Terminating the VFA doesn’t necessarily mean that the US has to withdraw its forces already in the Philippines as it has more effect on any forces the US might send there in the future, for example to conduct military exercises. But it should serve as an unambiguous sign that the Philippine government no longer wants them there, and therefore that they must be withdrawn. On the one hand, Duterte’s decision is a blow to the Trump administration’s efforts to contain China, assuming you think that’s a good and/or realistic objective. On the other hand, though, it offers a fantastic opportunity for the United States to cut military ties with an increasingly authoritarian, violent government and reduce its overseas military footprint.

CHINA

BNO News’s Wuhan coronavirus tracker says that the number of confirmed cases worldwide has risen to 45,171, with 1115 fatalities.

AFRICA

SUDAN

The Sudanese government reached an agreement with rebel groups in Darfur on Tuesday under which, somewhat surprisingly, it appears that former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir will be turned over to the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges. At least that’s the intent. Whether or not Bashir ever actually makes it to The Hague very much remains to be seen. Rebels have been calling for all five Sudanese officials accused of war crimes in Darfur, including Bashir, to be turned over to the ICC. The Sudanese government, which is eager to settle the country’s multiple rebellions, has apparently decided to accede to that demand in order to achieve its bigger goals to restore Sudan’s international reputation and rebuild its broken economy.

Bashir back when he was only under indictment from the ICC, in 2017 (Wikimedia Commons)

There has been (and will probably continue to be) some skepticism about the possibility that Khartoum would hand Bashir over for trial. This is mostly because a prosecution of the former president could implicate many of his former military leaders, including several who are currently serving in Sudan’s transitional military-civilian hybrid government.

LIBYA

Two neighborhoods in central Tripoli were shelled on Tuesday for the first time since Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” began its offensive against the Libyan capital last year. This may that the LNA is getting closer to the city. There have been no reports of casualties.

ALGERIA

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for Sunday’s suicide attack on a military base in southern Algeria, in which one soldier was killed. With its political crisis sort of over, Algeria has begun asserting itself regionally again. It’s trying to create a role for itself in negotiations over Libya, for example. But this attack signals that Algiers may want to turn some attention to its southern neighbors, Mali and Niger, whose extremist problems are metastasizing.

NIGERIA

At World Politics Review, Alex Thurston argues that the US decision to add Nigeria to Donald Trump’s travel ban is going to hurt both countries:

However it is justified by the administration, barring Nigerians from traveling to the U.S. will be counterproductive. Nigeria may be associated in many Americans’ minds with terrorists kidnapping young girls and internet scammers posing as temporarily inconvenienced princes, yet the Nigerian diaspora in the U.S. is actually much more educated than the American population as a whole. A 2015 study found that of the estimated 376,000 Nigerian immigrants in the U.S., 29 percent had an advanced degree, compared with 11 percent of the general population.

Then there is the demographic, economic and political weight of Nigeria itself. With nearly 200 million people and a GDP of almost $400 billion—the highest in Africa on both measures—Nigeria’s global importance is undeniable. Its population, which is set to double by 2050, may well overtake that of the U.S. sometime this century. Nigeria would seem to be an indispensable partner and even peer of America.

The most likely effect of the travel ban for Nigerians will be to impose a huge set of burdens on families. The ban will also have an economic impact, potentially disrupting the more than $6 billion in remittances that flow from the U.S. to Nigeria each year and obstructing numerous other forms of commerce and economic exchange. To make matters worse for Nigerians, the ban, which covers immigrant visas, comes on top of existing, de facto restrictions on their travel to the U.S. Nigeria had one of the highest denial rates of any country for short-term, non-immigrant U.S. visas in 2018, and last year the Trump administration raised fees for Nigerians’ visa applications.

EUROPE

UKRAINE

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Tuesday canned his chief of staff, Andriy Bohdan, in what may be an effort to distance himself from the oligarch who bankrolled his presidential campaign. Bohdan previously worked for media mogul Ihor Kolomoisky, who has been viewed as Zelenskiy’s patron and as such has been undermining Zelenskiy’s anti-corruption rhetoric. He may also be signaling a desire for better relations with Donald Trump, since his new chief of staff, Andriy Yermak, was apparently Rudy Giuliani’s Man in Kyiv during the whole Hunter Biden fiasco.

Yermak is also a Russia hawk, though on Monday evening he offered some praise for the Russian government’s new Ukraine point man, Dmitry Kozak. That personnel move was interesting in its own right, as Kovak was born in Ukraine and is thought to be less strident with respect to the Ukraine situation than his predecessor, Vladislav Surkov. His appointment may be an olive branch from Moscow to Kyiv.

IRELAND

Sinn Féin, riding a huge success in Saturday’s parliamentary election, has reportedly begun feeling out smaller left of center parties in the Irish parliament about forming a government. But its path to forming a government is so narrow as to practically be non-existent. What’s interesting is that one of Ireland’s two traditionally dominant center-right parties, Fianna Fáil, may not be as opposed to collaborating with Sinn Féin as it made out during the campaign:

The announcement of full results on Tuesday confirmed a realignment of Irish politics. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, centrist rivals that took turns ruling Ireland for a century, lagged Sinn Féin in first-preference votes and respectively took 38 and 35 seats, among their worst results.

Fine Gael, after nine years in office, is expected to go into opposition, raising a question mark over the continued party leadership of Leo Varadkar, the outgoing taoiseach. He has ruled out a pact with Sinn Féin.

During the election, Fianna Fáil’s leader, Micheál Martin, also ruled out governing with Sinn Féin, which was the IRA’s political wing during the Troubles. Since the results, however, Martin has left open the possibility of a pact with Sinn Féin or Fine Gael.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are ideologically very close, but after an election in which both were given slaps on the wrist by the Irish electorate it’s probably a bad idea for them to collaborate on a new government. A Fianna Fáil-Sinn Féin partnership would only require a bit more assistance to get to a majority of 81 seats, but it would be ideologically unwieldy and there are serious questions about who would lead it. It’s unlikely Fianna Fáil would be willing to take a secondary role, but Sinn Féin can legitimately claim to have won Saturday’s election and therefore to have the right to lead the next government.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

Would-be Venezuelan president Juan Guaidó returned home from his big world tour on Tuesday and was met at the airport by a crowd of Nicolás Maduro supporters:

The most significant part of Guaidó’s vacation indeed seems to have been the return home and that fact that he hasn’t (at least so far) been arrested for violating the travel ban Maduro slapped on him last year. Maduro seems yet again to have decided it’s not worth arresting Guaidó and creating an international incident.

EL SALVADOR

El Salvador’s Supreme Court on Monday ordered President Nayib Bukele not to use the Salvadoran army or police to intimidate opposition politicians. You would think this would go without saying, and yet that’s exactly what Bukele did over the weekend in an attempt to force a vote on new funding for those security institutions. Bukele criticized the ruling but said he would abide by it, though again you’d think that would go without saying.

Bukele’s stunt is the latest sign of an increasing role for national militaries in Latin America, a trend that is partly fueled by popular sentiment:

Analysts say the growing tendency of political leaders to turn to the military to assert their power reflects a mounting frustration with democracy.

After years of strong growth, many Latin American economies have slowed, and citizens are sliding back into poverty. Some countries, such as Mexico and Brazil, have been plagued by violence. Corruption is more visible than ever, thanks to a freer media and more robust civil society organizations.

Satisfaction with democracy in Latin America fell from 44 percent in 2008 to 24 percent a decade later, according to polling by Latinobarómetro, a Chilean-based firm.

The military is often viewed as less corrupt, more patriotic and better able to restore order than politicians. Presidents turn to the armed forces to give luster to their governments or legitimacy to their decisions.

CANADA

The Canadian government is attempting to force the construction of a natural gas pipeline on indigenous land in British Colombia, despite the opposition of the Wet’suwet’en people who live there:

Protests held in solidarity with a blockade of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern British Columbia by members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation continue to grow as experts sound the alarm on what they call “unlawful and unjust” arrests.

Tensions have been escalating since Dec.31, when the B.C. Supreme Court granted Coastal GasLink an expanded injunction against the Wet’suwet’en Nation members blocking access to the project.

Last Thursday, the RCMP began enforcing that injunction, asking protesters to leave the camp blocking access to a service road near Houston, B.C. The RCMP have since arrested more than 20 protesters in the area.

The ongoing conflict has prompted several solidarity protests across the country, with protesters blocking access to rail lines, legislatures and port entries.

GasLink apparently has the support of several elected Wet’suwet’en tribal councils, but their authority over the disposition of traditional tribal land is unclear and tribal chiefs are leading the opposition to the pipeline under the principle that the tribe still has ownership of the land and has not ceded it to the Canadian government.

Civil liberties activists have raised concerns both about the government’s denial of indigenous rights to the land and about the RCMP’s overly punitive enforcement of that injunction, which has involved numerous raids against the Wet’suwet’en and other protesters over the past several days. The RCMP said Tuesday that it’s “wrapping up” its operations, but it’s unclear whether that’s because of public outcry or because it’s accomplished its aim (the protesters don’t seem to have given up despite the raids and arrests).

UNITED STATES

Finally, I know we focus on foreign affairs around here and this isn’t exactly that. But the collapse of the United States government into full-blown authoritarianism is an issue with some international relevance, and that is what now appears to be happening inside the Justice Department:

The U.S. attorney who had presided over an inconclusive criminal investigation into former acting FBI director Andrew McCabe was abruptly removed from the job last month in one of several recent moves by Attorney General William Barr to take control of legal matters of personal interest to President Donald Trump, according to multiple people familiar with the matter.

A person familiar with the matter confirmed to NBC News that Trump has rescinded the nomination of Jessie Liu, who had been the U.S. attorney for Washington, D.C., for a job as an undersecretary at the Treasury Department.

Liu also supervised the case against Trump associate Roger Stone. On Tuesday, all four line prosecutors withdrew from the case — and one quit the Justice Department altogether — after Barr and his top aides intervened to reverse a stiff sentencing recommendation of up to nine years in prison that the line prosecutors had filed with the court Monday. (Liu left before the sentencing recommendation was made.)

But that wasn't the first time senior political appointees had reached into a case involving a former Trump aide, officials told NBC News. Senior officials at the Justice Department also intervened last month to help change the government's sentencing recommendation for Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. While the prosecutors had once recommended up to six months in jail, their latest filing now says they believe probation would be appropriate.

Though nominated by the president, the US Attorney General is supposed to be a different sort of cabinet official than, say, the secretaries of state or defense. Where those offices represent the president directly, the AG should represent the United States, even if that conflicts with his or her boss’s agenda. The holder of that office is not, in other words, supposed to be the president’s lawyer, and if that’s what the office becomes it will do serious damage to the rule of law. Of course that principle is never perfectly applied, but as with so many other things the Trump administration has let the mask slip off here in unprecedented and troubling ways.