World update: February 13 2020

Stories from Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Ireland, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

February 12, 1502: Queen Isabella of Castile publicly proclaims an edict outlawing Islam in her kingdom. The edict built on previous forced conversions in Granada and indeed was justified on the basis that it would be unfair to leave Islam legal in the rest of Castile when it had been outlawed in Granada. Muslims living in the kingdom were obliged to leave or convert, and since leaving cost money and meant uprooting your entire life, most chose conversion. Of course that only bought people about a century before King Philip III of Spain expelled the Moriscos, the descendants of converted Muslims, in 1609.

February 12, 1912: Puyi, the final emperor of both the Qing dynasty and China overall, abdicates, giving way to the Republic of China and marking the end of the Xinhai Revolution. Rebel leader Sun Yat-sen succeeded him as the first president of the provisional government of the Republic of China. Puyi would later serve as the “ruler” of the “Empire of Manchuria,” a puppet state established by Japan in northern China and Inner Mongolia that existed from 1932-1945.

February 13, 1945: The World War II Siege of Budapest ends with the Axis (German and Hungarian) defenders surrendering the city to the Soviet Red Army and allied Romanian forces. Casualties were high on both sides, but at this point in the war they were casualties the Soviets could withstand while the Nazis could not. Some 38,000 civilians are estimated to have died from combat and starvation during the nearly two month siege. On the same day, Allied forces in the west began their extended firebombing of the German city of Dresden, which lasted for three days and killed at least 25,000 people. There continues to be a debate over the legitimacy of Dresden as a target and of the justification for such an overwhelming air campaign against what was predominantly a civilian population.

February 13, 1991: During the Gulf War, the US Air Force bombs an air raid shelter in Baghdad’s Amiriyah neighborhood, killing at least 408 civilians. The Amiriyah facility was being used as a shelter for neighborhood residents, though the US military believed, and in fact continues to maintain that it was being used as an Iraqi command and control bunker and that the Iraqi government deliberately put the civilians there as human shields. This is how the United States tries to brush off a lot of its atrocities, with the argument that actually it was the Bad Guys on the other side who forced and/or tricked us into killing a bunch of innocent people. Even at that, the US military knew that the facility was at least in part being used as a civilian shelter and therefore its decision to bomb it without warning and without giving civilians time to clear the area would still make it a potential war crime, if such designations ever really applied to anything the United States does.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Syrian air defenses scrambled to intercept another round of Israeli missiles heading toward Damascus on Thursday. The impact of these strikes usually takes a day or so to filter out after the initial (and invariably wrong) Syrian claims that they shot all the projectiles down. So there may be more to say on this tomorrow.

Under pressure from Russia to enforce its end of their joint northwestern Syria deconfliction agreement, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Thursday that his forces will use “force…against those violating the ceasefire.” This includes, presumably, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the various Free Syrian Army factions that have rebranded as Turkish proxies. Turkey has done little to control those groups despite its obligations toward the ceasefire it negotiated with Russia in 2018 and renewed at least once last year. On the other hand, Russia has done nothing to uphold its end of that ceasefire either, though it blames that on Turkey’s failure to control the rebels.

IRAQ

Somebody fired a rocket that hit the K1 military base near Kirkuk on Thursday. That’s the same base on which one US contractor was killed in a rocket attack in December, which kicked off a series of events culminating in the US assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. The US blamed the Iraqi militia Kataʾib Hezbollah for that attack, and everything that followed progressed from that theory, but there is at least some reason to suspect that the real culprit was the Islamic State. There were no casualties from Thursday’s attack, whose perpetrators are unknown.

Hundreds of Iraqi women took to the streets in Baghdad and Nasiriyah on Thursday in direct opposition to Muqtada al-Sadr, the opportunistic cleric whose position on anti-government protests has shifted from support to opposition and back again approximately 2500 times since I began typing this sentence. Despite having repeatedly shown himself to be unreliable at best, Sadr decided earlier this week that it was his prerogative to write up a code of conduct for the protesters to follow. Among its several planks was an insistence that women and men protest separately. I guess the message here was “get bent,” more or less. It’s really pretty amazing to consider the speed with which Sadr has gone from somebody who had some legitimacy with the protesters to somebody viewed as an enemy of the protests, or at best as a joke.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

One of the things that makes the Kushner Accords unique in the annals of feeble US efforts to negotiate an Israel-Palestine peace deal is the degree to which the Accords take an old US formula and flip it on its head. In the past, US administrations have always dangled the possibility of Israel’s regional integration as a benefit of a peace deal, a carrot for the Israeli side to make concessions to the Palestinians. The roots of that formula go back to the “land for peace” deal that the US brokered between Egypt and Israel in the 1970s.

The Accords take Israel’s regional integration, in the form of a broad anti-Iran coalition, as basically a fait accompli. Instead of the possibility of integration serving as an enticement for Israel to make concessions, the fact of integration now serves as the justification for acquiescing to everything Israel wants and consigning the Palestinians to apartheid. When several Arab ambassadors attended the Accords’ roll out at the White House last month it was thought to be a sign that at least some Arab governments were ready to toss the Palestinians overboard. But RAND Middle East analyst Dalia Dassa Kaye argues that’s not likely to happen:

But once the contents of the plan were revealed, even these Arab ambassadors claimed they had been misled, and the formal rejections of the plan began in the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Jordan is firmly opposed to a plan that accepts Israeli sovereignty over the entire Jordan Valley. For many months Jordan has expressed concern about the contours of the plan given the infeasibility of the state proposed for the Palestinians and fears that potential Israeli annexation of large parts of the West Bank could lead to an option favored in some right-wing Israeli circles that "Jordan is Palestine" — and thus the Palestinians don’t need a state in the West Bank and Gaza.

Such Arab opposition may grow and constrain Israel’s normalization in the region. To be sure, quiet talks behind closed doors and occasionally even in the open at summits designed to gain favor with the US administration are likely to continue even without a peace agreement because of common alignment on Iran and shared interests in areas such as water and technology, particularly between Israel and its Gulf Arab neighbors. Some of this cooperation is beneficial for the future growth of the region, though other aspects are not, such as the popularity of surveillance technology from Israeli firms such as the NSO Group in the Arab Gulf. But full integration of Israel is nonetheless unlikely because people in the region still care about the Palestinian cause even if their leaders don’t.

IRAN

With eight Republicans joining the chamber’s Democrats, the US Senate on Thursday passed a War Powers measure, 55-45, to prevent Donald Trump from undertaking “offensive” military action against Iran without Congressional approval. The measure will go back to the House and then it will be on to Trump’s desk for a certain veto, which Congress will not be able to override. Even if by some miracle this measure became law, it includes a gigantic loophole that would allow Trump to engage in military action against Iran if it’s in “self-defense.” As pretty much anything can be spun as “in self-defense” that renders the rest of the resolution basically meaningless.

The US Navy interdicted a dhow in the Arabian Sea on Thursday that was reportedly carrying weapons that can be traced back to Iran. These were mostly anti-tank missiles with a few anti-aircraft missiles. The likelihood is that they were bound for the Houthis in Yemen, though it’s probably impossible to prove that. Iran is under a United Nations embargo barring it from selling weapons, though there too it would be very difficult to prove to a certainty that these weapons were provided by the Iranian government and not, for example, purchased on the black market.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in Munich on Thursday that the US and the Taliban “have made real progress over the last handful of days” in negotiating a peace deal. The details remain private but it looks like the agreement will hinge on the Taliban making a “demonstrated,” in Pompeo’s words, reduction in violence for a specified period of time, probably seven days. If the Taliban does that to the Trump administration’s satisfaction, then the two sides would sign a deal including a potential US withdrawal of some size as well as direct talks between the Taliban and the current Afghan government.

The “reduction in violence” remains the subjective wild card in this arrangement, but it seems that what the administration is after is a ceasefire in all but name. The Taliban would have some leeway to initiate hostilities—for example if they feel that government security forces are trying to take advantage of the situation to grab territory—but otherwise they’d basically agree to pause hostilities. In part this period of reduced violence is supposed to serve as a demonstration that Taliban leadership has enough control over all of its various cells and factions to make a permanent ceasefire stick (frankly this is something the Afghan government has to demonstrate as well, since it relies on autonomous local militias in many parts of the country). It apparently became clear during the negotiating process that calling this preliminary freeze a “ceasefire” was a non-starter for Taliban negotiators, hence the rebranding.

Ideally that week long reduction in violence would carry over into the start of intra-Afghan negotiations and would basically become a ceasefire, but that’s not necessarily going to be the case. The US withdrawal would be slow and would coincide with those Taliban-Kabul talks, so that if the latter break down the US military could conceivably ratchet its operations back up pretty quickly.

MYANMAR

Somebody shelled a school in Myanmar’s Rakhine state on Thursday, wounding at least 19 children. The Myanmar government is blaming the attack on the rebel Arakan Army group but there’s no confirmation of that and it’s entirely conceivable that the Myanmar military was responsible.

CHINA

There are now 64,438 confirmed cases of the Wuhan coronavirus around the world and 1383 known fatalities. A woman died of the disease in Japan on Thursday, thereby becoming just the second person to die of the virus outside of China and only the third person to die of it outside of mainland China.

US prosecutors have issued new charges against Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei over allegations that it stole “trade secrets” from US firms:

The new 16-count indictment says Huawei employed a "long-running practice of using fraud and deception to misappropriate sophisticated technology from US counterparts," a Justice Department statement said, without naming the American companies.

"Huawei's efforts to steal trade secrets and other sophisticated US technology were successful," according to the statement, which said the company "obtained nonpublic intellectual property relating to internet router source code, cellular antenna technology and robotics" to gain an "unfair competitive advantage" over rivals.

According to the indictment, Huawei entered into confidentiality agreements with US tech firms and then violated those deals.

Huawei is accused of recruiting employees of other companies and "directing them to misappropriate their former employers' intellectual property."

The indictment also claims Huawei used "proxies" such as professors working at research institutions to steal trade secrets and "launched a policy instituting a bonus program to reward employees who obtained confidential information from competitors."

Huawei, which has also been accused of violating US sanctions against Iran and North Korea, denies the charges.

NORTH KOREA

The Trump administration says that it is “ready and prepared” to issue sanctions waivers to anyone working to contain the spread of the Wuhan coronavirus in North Korea. The International Red Cross had earlier called for waivers to allow financial resources to be transferred to its North Korean branch to purchase supplies and testing equipment.

OCEANIA

AUSTRALIA

Stunningly there’s good news to report in Australia’s battle against brush fires. A massive rainfall has brought all the fires in New South Wales province under control, hopefully signaling an end to the problem nationwide after a summer in which 33 people and potentially hundreds of millions of animals were killed and hundreds of millions of dollars in property was damaged or destroyed. Of course the heavy rains have brought a new climate emergency—severe flooding—but hey, at least it’s different! Now hopefully Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison can put this whole climate business behind him and get back to exporting more coal.

AFRICA

SUDAN

The interim Sudanese government and attorneys for the victims announced on Thursday that Khartoum will pay a total of $70 million to the families of the 17 people killed and 15 people injured in the al-Qaeda bombing of the USS Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden in 2000. The Sudanese government provided support to al-Qaeda in the 1990s and even hosted Osama bin Laden for a few years, though he’d long since returned to Afghanistan by the time of the Cole attack. In the settlement Sudan doesn’t admit any culpability in the attack. It’s hoping that this move will help convince the US government to remove it from the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism. That in turn is key to the Sudanese government’s plans to right the country’s economy.

The USS Cole in 2000 after the bombing, being towed out of Aden (Department of Defense)

LIBYA

Libya closed and later reopened Tripoli’s Mitiga airport on Thursday due to missile fire. Mitiga has been treated as a military target by the “Libyan National Army” due to its role as a drone base as well as a civilian airport, and earlier this week it emerged that the LNA has blockaded the airport to UN flights. In this case it’s unclear whether any missile fire actually hit the facility.

GUINEA

Al Jazeera reports on the opposition to Guinean President Alpha Condé’s efforts to remain in office past the end of what should be his final term this year:

MALI

The Malian army on Thursday deployed 240 soldiers, including some former rebels, to the northern town of Kidal for the first time since separatists chased them out of there in 2014. Over 400 more are expected to deploy to areas around Kidal in the coming days. The deployment has a symbolic meaning in terms of finally moving past the northern Mali insurrection that began in 2012, but the fact is that northern Mali remains a heavily insecure place with a major al-Qaeda presence and an Islamic State presence (near the Nigerien border) as well. These few hundred soldiers are going to present an immediate target for those extremist groups.

NIGERIA

Amnesty International has accused the Nigerian military of burning three villages to the ground and displacing hundreds of residents last month as part of its ongoing fight against Islamist extremists in northeastern Nigeria. The military may be engaging in scorched earth tactics, since it decided several months ago to protect only major population centers and leave the countryside to the extremists, but really I’m just speculating to try to explain what sure looks like a war crime. It claims its soldiers acted to protect those villages from Boko Haram but the residents, or I suppose former residents, don’t seem to agree.

CAMEROON

Meanwhile, around 8000 Cameroonians have reportedly fled into Nigeria to escape separatist violence in eastern Cameroon over the past two weeks. According to the UN there are now 60,000 Cameroonian refugees in Nigeria, a substantial portion of the estimated 500,000 Cameroonians who have been displaced by fighting between separatists and government security forces in the country’s anglophone eastern regions. The Cameroonian government has offered autonomy to the country’s two English-speaking provinces but the separatists seem to be sticking to an Independence Or Bust plan.

EUROPE

SLOVAKIA

Slovak voters will elect a new parliament on February 29, and a new poll suggests that six current opposition parties, led by the centrist Ordinary People party, could emerge with a collective majority if they can manage to stitch themselves together in what would undoubtedly be a pretty unwieldy (but mostly right-wing) coalition or support arrangement. Center-left Smer-SD, which is leading the current government, would remain the largest party in parliament. But its two coalition partners, the Slovak National Party and Most-Hid, both appear to be in danger of missing the minimum cutoff and thereby dropping out of the legislature altogether.

SWITZERLAND

A growing number of Swiss politicians are demanding a parliamentary investigation into how the CIA was able to purchase control of Swiss encryption firm Crypto AG. The Washington Post reported earlier this week that, in what they dubbed “Operation Rubicon,” the CIA and the West German intelligence agency BND purchased and operated Crypto AG, which for much of the 20th century was the world’s premier cryptography firm. Governments all over the world used the firm to encrypt their communications, and the CIA and BND had access to all of it via back doors put into Crypto’s products. The BND eventually quit the operation due to concerns over the extent to which the CIA was spying on US allies as well as adversaries, but the CIA held on to the company until 2018, by which point the rise of native encryption technology had rendered the company less useful. The Swiss government has already tapped a former Supreme Court justice to conduct a separate investigation.

NETHERLANDS

Two more letter bombs were discovered in a couple of Dutch offices on Thursday, including one that caught fire (but didn’t explode) in the Amsterdam office of ING Bank. Police were able to disarm the other, which was sent to the Utrecht office of the US telecommunications firm Unisys. They’re the latest in a series of bombings since the year started, one that seems to have picked up in frequency this week. Whoever is behind the bombings has apparently sent a ransom demand to authorities.

IRELAND

Sinn Féin’s hopes of forming or at least participating in Ireland’s next government were seemingly dashed on Thursday when the center-right Fianna Fáil party rejected its coalition offer. Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald had already acknowledged earlier in the day that the party could not form a coalition without one of Ireland’s two dominant center-right parties, either FF or the Fine Gael party of outgoing Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. Fine Gael has already ruled out the idea of collaborating with Sinn Féin.

Fianna Fáil looks like it will attempt to form a coalition without Fine Gael but hasn’t closed the door working with Varadkar’s party even though Irish voters, which handed both of those parties a clear defeat in Saturday’s election, probably aren’t terribly thrilled by the idea of the two of them working together. Fianna Fáil has been supporting Varadkar’s minority government and it’s possible that Fine Gael could now return the favor, though even with that they’ll need to find other partners to get to a majority of seats in the Irish parliament.

If Fianna Fáil can’t form a government then it will mean new elections, a possibility party leader Michael Martin acknowledged on Thursday. I suspect Martin and Varadkar will do everything they can to avoid that, because a snap election is likely to work in Sinn Féin’s favor. Not only could it blame the other parties for the failure to form a government and gain something from the backlash, but the party won’t make the same mistake it made Saturday, when it failed to anticipate its own popular vote victory and didn’t run enough candidates to fully take advantage. Consequently it emerged with one fewer parliamentary seat than Fianna Fáil despite, as I said, having won the overall popular vote. If that popular vote result repeats itself in a snap election, Sinn Féin will emerge as the largest party in parliament by several seats. Neither of the two center-right parties really wants to risk that.

AMERICAS

CHILE

At Fellow Travelers, Yong Kwon traces the developments that led Chile to its current state of unrest, and what lessons can be drawn for the United States and for US foreign policy:

A brief examination of Chile’s history over the past 150 years reveals the failure of successive governments to proactively address the public’s demand for economic justice. Most of the wealth redistribution in Chile’s history was a consequence of external developments, such as financial crises that moderated the relative wealth of oligarchs, rather than progressive policies that proactively transferred wealth to the masses. The brief exception was during the years between 1937 and 1973 when newly-elected Socialist and Radical Party legislators earnestly, albeit sporadically, introduced policies to redistribute society’s economic gains. But these efforts were cut short by the US-backed coup d’etat in 1973 whose legacy continues to limit the state’s ability to carry out structural reforms. The resulting inequality and feeling of powerlessness underpin today’s popular unrest.

Chile’s experience carries ramifications for the left’s approach to international development. The next US administration should advocate for not only fairer redistribution of resources by all governments, but also broader public participation in drafting economic policies. In particular, empowering unions at home and abroad will help build and safeguard a better future for working people around the world.

BRAZIL

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro canned his chief of staff on Thursday and replaced him with an army general named Walter Braga. So, that’s something. Bolsonaro has now installed military officers in seven of the 20 posts in his cabinet and inner circle, which doesn’t include his former general-turned-vice president Hamilton Mourão. Apparently this is supposed to convince people that Bolsonaro is not a normal politician, though I have to say it doesn’t do much to shake the belief that he’s a garden-variety fascist.

Bolsonaro has also apparently now picked a fight with Pope Francis after the pontiff criticized the Brazilian government’s program to destroy the Amazon rain forest and displace its indigenous residents. He’s always making new friends!

VENEZUELA

The Venezuelan government on Thursday admitted that it did, as suspected, arrest opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s uncle, Juan José Márquez, when Guaidó and Márquez returned from their world travels on Tuesday. Authorities are claiming that he “[brought] prohibited substances onto a flight,” citing a bulletproof vest and what they claim are explosive materials.

UNITED STATES

Public Citizen’s Savannah Wooten has gone through the Trump administration’s 2021 budget request, and even with the Pentagon trimming its budget slightly the overall package is still about as bad as you can imagine:

If a budget is a moral document, President Trump’s FY2021 budget proposal is a dark tell-all. Released this week to outcry from experts and advocates alike, the document underscores the president’s overt contempt for the most vulnerable in our society and consistent failure to plan for the real human security needs of the 21st century.

The total proposed budget is a record $4.8 trillion, up from the $4.74 trillion approved budget from last year. Its toplines include a 1 percent increase to the sky-high $738 billion defense budget, a continuation of tax breaks for the ultra-wealthy that equate to an additional $1.4 trillion by 2030, and drastic cuts to Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, at $850 billion, $270 billion, and $30 billion respectively. It also takes a knife to nearly every social service and national program designed to help Americans live full, supported lives, including double-digit percentage cuts to the Departments of State, Labor, and Interior, Housing and Urban Development, and the Environmental Protection Agency. These numbers are not arbitrary, but rather carefully designed to both dismantle the foundations of services many Americans require to live and further enrich the weapons manufacturers and service contractors in the catbird seat.

Finally, and on a related note, the Quincy Institute’s Stephen Wertheim argues in Foreign Affairs that, for its own sake and for everybody else’s, it’s time for the United States to admit that we really shouldn’t be trying to rule the world:

The collapse of the Soviet Union revealed the bankruptcy of international communism. In time, the absence of a Cold War foe also exposed the bankruptcy of Washington’s global ambitions. Freed from major challengers, the United States had an unprecedented chance to shape international politics according to its wishes. It could have chosen to live in harmony with the world, pulling back its armed forces and deploying them only for vital purposes. It could have helped build a world of peace, strengthening the laws and institutions that constrain war and that most other states welcome. From this foundation of security and goodwill, the United States could have exercised leadership on the already visible challenges ahead, including climate change and the concentration of ungoverned wealth.

Instead, Washington did the opposite. It adopted a grand strategy that gave pride of place to military threats and methods, and it constructed a form of global integration that served the immediate interests of a few but imperiled the long-term interests of the many. At best, these were mistaken priorities. At worst, they turned the United States into a destructive actor in the world. Rather than practice and cultivate peace, Washington pursued armed domination and launched futile wars in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003, and in Libya in 2011. These actions created more enemies than they defeated. They killed hundreds of thousands of civilians and overextended a generation of U.S. service members. They damaged laws and institutions that stabilize the world and the United States. They made the American people less safe.