World update: February 20 2020

Stories from Syria, South Sudan, El Salvador, and more


February 19, 197: The Roman army under Emperor Septimus Severus faces off against forces loyal to Roman usurper Clodius Albinus in the Battle of Lugdunum. After a two day fight Severus and his army were victorious, and Albinus either committed suicide or was murdered. Exact casualty figures are obviously impossible to tabulate. But because of the civil nature of the conflict, the large number of soldiers involved (a total of between 100,000 and 150,000, split more or less evenly between the two sides), and the historical reports of huge casualties on both sides, this was arguably the bloodiest single battle in the history of the Roman Empire.

February 19, 1913: Mexican politician Pedro Lascuráin enjoys the shortest presidency in history.

February 19, 1954: The Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union transfers administrative control of the Crimea Oblast from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. Intended as a personal gesture from Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to his favorite Soviet republic, Ukraine, at the time this move must have seemed like merely a formality. It’s become just a tad more contentious over the past few years.

February 20, 1792: The Postal Service Act is signed into law by US president George Washington, creating the United States Postal Service.

February 20, 1865: The Uruguayan War, which began as a rebellion by the Colorado Party (aided by Brazil and Argentina) against the Blanco Party-led Uruguayan government (aided by Paraguay), ends with the Blancos’ surrender and the formation of a new Colorado-led government. The results of this relatively short (a bit over six months) conflict were mostly subsumed by the much longer (almost five and half year) and more destructive Paraguayan War (AKA the “War of the Triple Alliance”) that spun out of it. Brazil and Paraguay had already gone to war the previous year, and when the Uruguayan War ended both Argentina and the new Uruguayan government also declared war against Paraguay.

February 20, 1988: Leaders of the predominantly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh enclave of Azerbaijan declare their intention to merge the region with Armenia, kicking off the six year long Nagorno-Karabakh War. A relatively low-level conflict in its first couple of years, the war really heated up with the fall of the Soviet Union, when both Armenia and Azerbaijan became independent states free to conduct their own wars without oversight. The conflict ended in 1994 with an Armenian military victory but an imposed peace that froze the situation in its current precarious state. Nagorno-Karabakh still claims to have seceded but has not been allowed to merge with Armenia, while Armenian military forces continue to occupy a sizable portion of Azerbaijani territory outside the enclave.



Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but heavy fighting broke out between Turkish forces and the Syrian military in northwestern Syria on Thursday that left two Turkish soldiers and roughly 50 Syrian soldiers dead, according to the Turkish military. As usual in these situations, each side accused the other of firing the first shot. In this case, the Russian military accused Turkish forces of shelling a Syrian position in order to aid Syrian rebels in a counterattack targeting the town of Nerab in Idlib province. After rebel forces managed to breach the Syrian line, the Russians hit back with airstrikes. The Turks are claiming it was the Syrian air force that carried out the airstrikes, unprovoked, and that they merely retaliated.

A few of Turkey’s rebel proxies seem to be saying the quiet part out loud, however, talking to reporters about an operation to recapture the town of Saraqib. The rebels view Saraqib as the linchpin in the government’s recent military advances, since it sits on the merge point of Syria’s M4 and M5 highways. Turkey may try to justify supporting an offensive to retake Saraqib by calling it an operation to relieve several Turkish forward military outposts around the town. Those outposts have been surrounded by pro-government forces for at least a couple of weeks now. But whatever you call it this looks increasingly like a conflict between Syria and Turkey, which is not the direction you’d like to see things going if you’re hoping for an end to the war and some relief for the hundreds of thousands of refugees the latest fighting has created.

Al-Monitor’s Fehim Taştekin suggests there may be yet another Kurdish realignment happening in northwestern Syria, as YPG forces north of the city of Aleppo are working with Russian and Syrian forces against Turkey and its rebel proxies. The United States has reportedly warned the YPG not to get involved in a military confrontation with Turkey and says it will not support the Kurds if that happens (not that anybody should have expected otherwise). Washington views the conflict in Idlib as a chance to pry Turkey and Russia apart a bit and if push came to shove would likely provide some assistance (not directly but in areas like intelligence sharing) to Ankara. This doesn’t necessarily imperil the US-YPG relationship in northeastern Syria but it doesn’t exactly leave it on firm footing either.


According to the Houthis, fighting between their forces and the Yemeni government has flared up around the town of Durayhimi, which is a short distance south of the city of Hudaydah and its important seaport. The clashes have killed at least 18 combatants and one civilian though those figures don’t appear to be confirmed. Durayhimi is just the latest of several flashpoints where fighting has resumed in recent weeks, but its proximity to Hudaydah, the point of entry for most of Yemen’s humanitarian aid, makes it potentially the most troubling.


The Israeli government and Palestinian Authority managed on Thursday to reach an agreement to end a lengthy dispute over agricultural products that was leaving Palestinian farmers with no way to export their wares. The PA has agreed to end its boycott on Israeli cattle, which it instituted in September, while the Israelis have agreed to resume importing Palestinian products and (according to the PA) to allow the Palestinians to import cattle from other countries. The PA instituted its boycott due to concerns about becoming overly dependent on Israel.


Saudi officials say their air defenses intercepted “several” Houthi missiles fired into the kingdom on Friday morning. The Houthis have so far said nothing about it.


The Trump administration imposed sanctions against five members of Iran’s Guardian Council on Thursday, over the council’s purging of reformist candidates from the ballot ahead of Friday’s parliamentary election. Council secretary Ahmad Jannati and Assembly of Experts speaker Mohammad Yazdi were the most prominent of the five



Pakistani authorities say they’ve gone to great lengths to root out extremist groups and bring an end to terrorist financing, which they believe should be enough to keep Islamabad off of the Financial Action Task Force’s blacklist when the group meets on Friday. In its most dramatic development, the Pakistani government successfully prosecuted Lashkar-e-Taiba founder Hafiz Saeed, the accused mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, for terrorism financing. He’s been sentenced to 11 years in prison. But while prosecutions like that may be enough to mollify the FATF, they’re not enough as far as Washington is concerned:

Arrests of prominent terrorists do not constitute “consistent and irreversible” steps because of Pakistan’s history of later releasing the same individuals, according to an American official briefed on U.S. assessments of Pakistan’s fight against terrorism. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

“I think what the U.S. is looking for is for Pakistan to not only arrest militants, arrest their leaders, put the leaders on trial, but also shut down the entire infrastructure of these financing networks,” said Michael Kugelman, a Pakistan expert at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.

The United States wants to see Pakistan “create conditions,” Kugelman said, where militants can’t be easily released after arrest and organizations that were shut down can’t be easily replaced by another group operating under a new name.


The Wuhan coronavirus has now infected at least 76,245 around the world and killed 2245 of them. The rate of infection still seems to be declining, though the sharp decline in new cases in Hubei province on Wednesday was actually a clerical adjustment due to another change in the method Chinese authorities are using to diagnose the infection. The Iraqi government has shut down direct flights to and from Iran and closed its border crossings between the two countries after the Iranian government revealed its first cases of the virus (and first deaths) on Wednesday. The Kuwaiti government has also suspended travel to and from Iran for the same reason.



Somehow, United Nations mediators convinced the Libyan government to rejoin military-to-military talks with the “Libyan National Army” in Geneva on Thursday. The Government of National Accord had quit those talks earlier in the week after the LNA shelled Tripoli’s harbor. It’s unclear how the UN got them to return, especially since the LNA is still apparently bombarding the harbor. A bombardment overnight displaced a herd of 3000 camels that had just arrived from Australia. The dromedaries were hustled west to the city of Zawiya, though bandits reportedly made off with some 125 of them along the way.

This is not the herd in question, though I imagine they probably looked similar (joepyrek via Flickr)


In another somewhat unexpected development, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar announced Thursday that they’ve reached agreement on forming a national unity government, only two days before their deadline to do so would have lapsed. This is surprising not just because the two men have already blown through multiple deadlines in this process, but also because just a few days ago Machar rejected Kiir’s plan to reduce the number of South Sudanese states in accordance with the rebels’ wishes. Many of the details—including the integration of rebel fighters into the national armed forces and the prosecution of war crimes (and there have been plenty of them) stemming from the country’s civil war—remain to be worked out. But the main immediate developments will be the reinstatement of Machar as Kiir’s vice president on Friday as well as the provision of security for Machar and other rebel leaders who will become part of the new government.


According to Human Rights Watch, Kenyan police have killed at least eight people in poverty-stricken Nairobi neighborhoods over the past two months, part of a bigger pattern of police abuse of power in urban slums. Kenyan police officials claim they’ve implemented reforms to stop such incidents and are committed to prosecuting any officers who abuse their authority, but HRW says that the watchdog agency assigned to investigate these cases is not getting cooperation from the police force.



Wednesday evening’s shootings in the German city of Hanau, in which at least 11 people were killed including the shooter and his mother, does indeed appear to have been terrorism of the right-wing variety. The gunman shot up two shisha bars in the city, killing nine people, before returning home and murdering his mother (though it’s possible he killed her before the shootings) then killing himself. He left behind a letter and a video that explained his motives.



Bolivian elections officials have barred former president Evo Morales from running for the senate in May’s general election. While this decision was undoubtedly taken for ideological reasons, the fact that Morales now lives in Argentina—following the coup forced him to flee Bolivia in November—gave officials a legal justification for excluding him.


NACLA’s Hilary Goodfriend argues that Salvadoran President Naiyb Bukele’s recent attempt to impose military rule on the Salvadoran Congress has pulled back the curtain on his administration:

Whatever its outcome, the crisis, calculatingly contrived by the president, marks the radicalization of his project. Bukele campaigned as a Silicon Valley-style disrupter, positioning himself against a corrupt political class encumbered by outdated ideological divisions and pledging to mobilize international investment to catapult El Salvador into the 21st century. Rapidly, however, he assembled all the signifiers of the ascendant fascist right. By exalting and politicizing the Armed Forces, conflating any opposition with “terrorist” criminal gangs, and embracing evangelical Christian fundamentalists, Bukele is aligning himself and his base with the region’s most reactionary forces.


Apparently Donald Trump fired his acting director of national intelligence and replaced him with a sycophant because the outgoing DNI, John Maguire, insisted on briefing the president about Russian efforts to interfere with November’s presidential election even though Donald didn’t want to hear about it. For somebody who cultivates such a tough guy image, when it comes to hearing information he doesn’t like Trump really is President Baby.

Finally, in a new essay in Harper’s Magazine the Quincy Institute’s Andrew Bacevich looks at the history of American imperialism:

Even today, most Americans are only dimly aware of the scope—one might even say the grandeur—of our expansionist project, which stands alongside racial oppression as an abiding theme of the American story. As far back as the 1780s, the Northwest Ordinances, which created the mechanism to incorporate the present-day Midwest into the Union, had made it clear that the United States had no intention of confining its reach to the territory encompassed within the boundaries of the original thirteen states. And while nineteenth-century presidents did not adhere to a consistent grand plan, they did pursue a de facto strategy of opportunistic expansion. Although the United States encountered resistance during the course of this remarkable ascent, virtually all of it was defeated. With the notable exception of the failed attempt to annex Canada during the War of 1812, expansionist efforts succeeded spectacularly and at a remarkably modest cost to the nation. By midcentury, the United States stretched from sea to shining sea.

Generations of Americans chose to enshrine this story of westward expansion as a heroic tale of advancing liberty, democracy, and civilization. Although that story certainly did include heroism, it also featured brute force, crafty maneuvering, and a knack for striking a bargain when the occasion presented itself.

In the popular imagination, the narrative of “how the West was won” to which I was introduced as a youngster has today lost much of its moral luster. Yet the country’s belated pangs of conscience have not induced any inclination to reapportion the spoils. While the idea of offering reparations to the offspring of former slaves may receive polite attention, no one proposes returning Florida to Spain, Tennessee and Georgia to the Cherokees, or California to Mexico. Properties seized, finagled, extorted, or paid for with cold, hard cash remain American in perpetuity.