World update: February 22-23 2020

Stories from Malaysia, Niger, Haiti, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

February 21, 1916: The Battle of Verdun—the longest battle of World War I and, indeed, in recorded history—begins. It would end with a French victory over the attacking Germans almost a full ten months later, on December 18, after more than 300,000 soldiers had been killed on either side and upwards of 800,000 wounded. The battle is remembered today for the extended brutality of the war and, in France, for the resistance the French army showed in the face of a German effort to wear it down.

February 21, 1921: The Iranian Cossack Brigade marches into Tehran and, in a coup supported by British officials in Iran, forces Ahmad Shah Qajar to appoint a new cabinet led by journalist Ziaʾeddin Tabatabaee and military commander Reza Khan—the future Reza Shah Pahlavi.

February 22, 1848: A large crowd gathers in downtown Paris to demonstrate its anger against King Louis Philippe I and demand the resignation of his prime minister, François Pierre Guillaume Guizot. The following day, Guizot’s resignation was overshadowed when French soldiers fired on the crowd, massacring more than 50 of them and kicking off the French Revolution of 1848. The revolution toppled Louis Philippe and instituted the French Second Republic, which lasted until 1852 when its president, Louis Napoléon Bonaparte (AKA Napoleon III), declared himself emperor as his uncle had done in 1804.

February 23, 1455: This is traditionally the date cited for the publication of the “Gutenberg Bible,” one of the first books mass printed in Europe using moveable metal type and certainly the most famous. Johannes Gutenberg’s work helped usher in the age of printing, in which books could be produced at such a volume that they became affordable and available to a wider segment of the public and printing scholarly works in vernacular languages (rather than just Latin) became more viable.

A copy of the Gutenberg Bible in the New York Public Library (NYC Wanderer via Wikimedia Commons)

February 23, 1966: Leaders of the Syrian regional branch of the Baʿath Party pull off a coup d’etat ousting traditional party leadership. The incident precipitated the splintering of the previously pan-Arab Baʿathist movement into Syrian and Iraqi national parties.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Syrian media is reporting that the country’s air defenses responded to an air raid on or near Damascus late Sunday. The targets were several Palestinian Islamic Jihad facilities in the area, which means this strike was connected to Sunday’s events in Gaza, about which you can read more below. There’s been no report of casualties so far but it’s probably too early to draw any hard conclusions.

The Syrian government reopened the entire M5 highway between Aleppo and Damascus to civilian traffic on Saturday. Chunks of the highway had been in rebel hands since 2012 but the Syrian military secured the whole road earlier this month as part of its ongoing offensive in northwestern Syria. Speaking of which, according to the Turkish military pro-Damascus fighters killed another Turkish soldier in Idlib province on Saturday, bringing the number of Turks killed there this month to 16. The Turks retaliated with artillery strikes against several Syrian military targets in the area. Several more Turkish soldiers were wounded by pro-government forces in Idlib on Sunday when their convoy was targeted by airstrikes and artillery fire and had to withdraw to the north.

YEMEN

Saudi warplanes struck several Houthi targets in the Yemeni capital of Sanaa on Sunday in retaliation for the Houthis firing several missiles into Saudi Arabia on Friday morning. The Saudis also claim that they stopped a planned Houthi attack in the Red Sea involving an unmanned boat packed with explosives. It’s unclear what the Houthis were allegedly targeting.

Elsewhere, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula confirmed over the weekend that its former leader Qasim al-Raymi was indeed killed in a US airstrike in January, as Donald Trump announced earlier this month. He’s apparently been replaced by Khalid Batarfi, a Saudi national who previously ran AQAP’s media network and was the group’s commander in Yemen’s Hadramawt province.

IRAQ

Iraqi police opened fire on protesters in Baghdad on Sunday, killing at least one and wounding at least seven more.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli soldiers killed a member of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group who was planting a bomb near the Gaza fence on Sunday, then carted his body off with a bulldozer, apparently as A Message To The Evildoers. Two more Palestinians were apparently wounded during the extraction, which was condemned by both Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as Israeli human rights groups, and subsequently Islamic Jihad fired 21 rockets out of Gaza. The Israelis have retaliated for that with multiple airstrikes against Islamic Jihad targets inside Gaza and Syria (see above). There’s no report of any casualties from either the rockets, while at least four people were injured in the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza.

On Saturday, Israeli police in Jerusalem shot and killed another Palestinian man who allegedly tried to attack them with a knife.

IRAN

Iranian authorities on Sunday acknowledged that turnout for Friday’s legislative election was dismal—a mere 42.5-ish percent, substantially less than the 62 percent who voted four years ago. But lest you blame voter apathy caused by anger over Iran’s lousy economy or the Guardian Council’s decision to purge reformist candidates from the ballot, think again! Actually people didn’t vote because they were, uh, afraid of the Wuhan coronavirus! Yeah, that’s it! But not the actual virus, because that would imply that there’s a virus risk in Iran. Which there’s not! Instead, according to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, it was “negative propaganda” about the virus, spread by Iran’s enemies, that kept people home. Of course! It’s all so simple and believable! Anyway, hardliners appeared to do very well, because of course most non-hardliners were barred from running.

Sanctions analyst Tyler Cullis writes that the new channel set up by the Trump administration to facilitate (allegedly) trade in basic necessities with Iran has instead had the effect of further restricting such trade:

A few weeks ago, the Trump administration announced that initial transactions have been made through the Swiss channel. Review of these transactions indicates that, in their push to stymie ongoing criticism of their apparent disregard for the humanitarian consequences of their sanctions, the Trump administration set up a “humanitarian channel” that is not just too limited in scope to have meaningful impact on Iran’s ability to access basic humanitarian goods, but that threatens to push out those few remaining banks that continue to facilitate trade in humanitarian goods with Iran. The reason is obvious: If the U.S. government provides written assurance to certain banks that they will not be sanctioned for engaging in non-sanctionable trade with Iran, then other banks will be reluctant to facilitate such trade absent the written assurance. But, because such written assurance is barred for many foreign banks due to data-sharing laws in their local jurisdictions and because such written assurance appears to have only been provided to Swiss bank(s) at this time, those foreign banks that have facilitated trade in humanitarian goods with Iran up until this point are inclined to bow out due to the increased risks brought about by the humanitarian mechanism. The fear is a sensible one: the U.S. government is likely to look skeptically at banks that do not make use of the humanitarian mechanism, irrespective of whether the mechanism is required as a matter of U.S. law or not.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The seven day US-Taliban “reduction in violence” agreement that went into effect at midnight Saturday appears to have survived the weekend, so that’s something. There were reports of clashes between Taliban and Afghan security forces in several parts of the country on Saturday. But these seem to have been fairly minor and were described by Taliban leaders as responses to attempts by the Afghan forces to move into Taliban-occupied territory, which if true means the Taliban was entitled to respond under the terms of the RIV agreement.

MALAYSIA

It would appear that the other shoe that’s been lingering around Malaysian politics for almost two years has finally dropped:

Malaysia’s would-be leader, Anwar Ibrahim, has accused 94-year-old Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s party and “traitors” in his own camp of plotting a wholesale change in the ruling coalition that could ultimately deny him the premiership.

After being promised that he would one day become prime minister, Anwar allied with former rival Mahathir to win a surprise victory in the 2018 general election and end the six-decade grip of a party accused of widespread corruption.

But on Sunday politicians from the coalition held talks at a hotel near Kuala Lumpur about a possible new alliance with members of the ousted former ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), political sources said.

Mahathir ran the UMNO during his 1981-2003 stint as prime minister and only quit the party in 2016 when he publicly turned on his scandal-plagued successor, Najib Razak. The alliance he formed with his former protege Anwar ahead of the 2018 election was supposed to see Mahathir serve two or maybe three years as PM before handing the office to Anwar, but as we approach the two year mark in his premiership you didn’t have to be Nostradamus to see this coming. Anwar has his own scandals to deal with, having been accused of sexually harassing a former aide and multiple times of engaging in homosexual acts—which I grant you isn’t scandalous, but it is still a crime in Malaysia. Anwar insists that all of these allegations are politically motivated. Mahathir may lose some support if he goes back on his arrangement with Anwar, but he’ll also get to serve a full term as prime minister and, at the age of 94, he’s probably not that worried about his long-term future in politics.

CHINA

The Wuhan coronavirus has now infected at least 79,558 people around the world, killing 2619 of them. The outbreak may have turned a corner this weekend in that its growth still appears to be slowing in China but now is escalating at an alarming rate in several place outside of China—specifically in Iran, Italy, and South Korea. South Korea has been particularly hard hit, with some 763 diagnosed cases, the largest number anywhere outside of mainland China. The number of cases in Italy has spiked to 155 amid drastic quarantine measures in the northern part of the country.

Iran has only confirmed 43 cases, but the fact that eight Iranians have died of the virus has raised questions about whether there might be a lot more cases that the Iranians either haven’t diagnosed or are trying to conceal. That’s why at least five countries so far—Iraq, Kuwait, Turkey, Pakistan, and Armenia—have either restricted or outright banned travel to and from Iran.

AFRICA

LIBYA

The “Libyan National Army ” says it’s killed 16 Turkish soldiers in military actions in Misrata and in and around Tripoli over the past few weeks. That declaration comes a day after the Turkish government acknowledged that some of its soldiers have died in Libya and highlights the extent of the assistance Ankara has been providing to the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord.

TOGO

Surprising…well, no one, really, incumbent Faure Gnassingbé has been declared the winner in a landslide in Saturday’s Togolese presidential election. Officially Gnassingbé has been credited with 72 percent of the vote, giving himself a fourth term and extending his family’s 53 or so year hold on the Togolese presidency.

NIGER

A joint Nigerien-French military operation earlier this week near Niger’s borders with Burkina Faso and Mali “neutralized” 120 “terrorists” of some description, according to a statement issued by the Nigerien defense ministry on Friday. The Islamic State’s West African affiliate (formerly its “Greater Sahara” affiliate before it was merged on paper with IS’s West Africa Province operating in the Lake Chad region) is particularly active in Niger so presumably the operation targeted them.

Analysts are warning that al-Qaeda and IS affiliates in West Africa appear to be coordinating their efforts or at least honoring each other’s spheres of influence. That’s problematic but hardly the kind of full-blown alliance you’d think they’d formed from reading pieces like this one in the Washington Post. What is more worrisome is that the militants appear to have changed tactics and are now playing a much longer game:

The extremists are “more organized and they’re more mobile,” said a high-ranking French military official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military assessments. “They’re carrying out professional attacks like we’ve never seen.”

It’s a departure from 2012, when al-Qaeda loyalists planted flags in Mali’s northern cities and then tried to take the capital, Bamako — drawing the ire of French troops, who beat them back.

The militants appear to have learned from that loss, the officials said, and since last July have employed a more “complex” approach to grabbing power, according to unclassified U.S. Africa Command slides obtained by The Washington Post: They’re destroying infrastructure, assassinating local leaders and emptying key army posts in coordinated strikes to separate people from the government.

The militants see an opportunity to drill Islamist values into one of the youngest and fastest-growing populations on Earth, military leaders in the region said. They aim to shape new fundamentalist societies: no art, no popular music, no sports, no modern education.

Recent history has shown that groups like IS are at their most vulnerable when they pop out from underground, especially by conquering territory. They’re at their strongest when they stay under the surface, exploiting (and sometimes exacerbating) failures of governance and other local grievances to create an audience for their message. France, the United States, and the governments of the Sahel can throw all the military resources they want at the problem of extremist violence in the region, but unless they’re able to address issues like corruption, the abuse of power, inter-communal violence, and poverty it’s not going to matter.

EUROPE

UNITED KINGDOM

The UK has only just Brexited and already Prime Minister Boris Johnson is looking for ways to ignore the deal he struck with the European Union over Northern Ireland. Johnson’s agreement stipulated in short that the British government would institute border and customs checks on goods traveling between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, in order to avoid imposing them on goods traveling between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Johnson apparently wants to find a loophole in his own agreement in order to strengthen his bargaining position with the EU over a free trade agreement, but he’s liable to make the negotiation of such an agreement impossible if his government does something to trigger the Brexit deal’s dispute mechanism.

Reneging on a major deal like this could also convince potential UK trade partners that they can’t rely on Johnson to uphold agreements, which doesn’t bode well for negotiating future trade deals. That includes trade deals with the United States, which isn’t always going to be run by Johnson’s BFF, Donald Trump. At least I don’t think it will, who knows at this point.

AMERICAS

HAITI

Haitian police, protesting President Jovenel Moïse’s efforts to prevent them from unionizing as well as the rest of Haiti’s general condition under his now-unchecked rule, engaged in a lengthy gun battle with Haitian soldiers in Port-au-Prince on Sunday in which at least two soldiers were killed. At least six other people were wounded in the shootout but most likely there were more than that. Moïse’s government canceled Tuesday’s Carnival celebrations in the city after police protests gathered in intensity over the past few days and vandals began targeting Carnival floats and other facilities. Haitian police are demanding better pay and working conditions, and their movement is beginning to meld into the broader protest movement that’s been demanding Moïse’s resignation for months over corruption and the perpetually depressed Haitian economy. The Haitian military is technically forbidden from getting involved in domestic politics, but it’s loyal to Moïse since he’s the one who (re-)created it in 2017, and so it’s acting here as his security.

UNITED STATES

Finally, writer and anti-torture activist Rebecca Gordon draws a link between Donald Trump’s sense of invulnerability and America’s steadfast refusal to confront its sins:

The Senate’s failure to convict the president will only confirm his conception of his office as a seat of absolute power (which, as we’ve been told, “corrupts absolutely”). This is the man, after all, who told a convention of student activists, “I have an Article II, where I have the right to do whatever I want as president. But I don’t even talk about that.” Except, of course, he does.

The day after the Senate vote, a decidedly unchastened Trump spoke at a National Prayer Breakfast, brandishing a copy of USA Today whose banner headline contained a single word: “Acquitted.” After disagreeing with the prayerful suggestion offered by Arthur Brooks, former head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute (and a couple of millennia earlier by one Jesus of Nazareth), that we should love our enemies, the president promptly accused both Mitt Romney and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of inadequate prayerfulness. He lumped Romney in with people “who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong” and accused Pelosi, not for the first time, of lying when she says she prays for him.

Trump’s endless boasting about his invulnerability can certainly be blamed on the dismal swamp of his own psyche, but there’s another at least partial explanation for it -- and it lies in the country’s collective failure to hold anyone responsible for crimes committed since 2001 in the “war on terror.” If one administration can get away with confining detainees in coffinlike boxes and torturing them in myriad other ways, why shouldn’t a later one go unpunished for, to take but one example, putting migrant children in cages?