World update: February 25 2020

Stories from Israel-Palestine, Somalia, Venezuela, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

February 24, 1739: The Battle of Karnal

February 24, 1918: The Republic of Estonia declares independence from Russia before being occupied by German forces. Upon its defeat in World War I, Germany was obliged to turn Estonia over to an independent government, and the country remained independent until it was occupied by the Soviets in 1940. Despite the Soviet interlude, this date is annually commemorated as Estonian Independence Day.

February 25, 628: Sasanian (Persian) nobles overthrow Emperor Khosrow II in favor of his son, Kavadh II, who promptly liquidated his brothers and had his father executed. Khosrow was on the verge of losing the 602-628 war against the Byzantines, which had begun very promisingly for the Sasanians but fell apart beginning with Khosrow’s ill-advised 626 siege of Constantinople. One of Kavadh’s first actions as emperor was to make peace with Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, after which his brutality toward the rest of his family plunged the Sasanian Empire into a civil war from which it never recovered.

February 25, 1943: The World War II Battle of Kasserine Pass, in central Tunisia, ends in an Axis tactical victory but a strategic stalemate.

February 25, 1980: A Surinamese military coup organized around a group of 16 sergeants led by current Surinamese President Dési Bouterse ousts the country’s civilian government, kicking off an 11 year period of military rule, with nominally civilian leaders serving under Bouterse’s control. The military government severely curtailed political freedoms and civil rights and was marked both by its corruption and its penchant for imprisoning and executing political opponents. Nevertheless, the day is still commemorated annually in Suriname.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

The “Syrian National Army,” a rebranding of the Free Syrian Army under Turkish auspices, says it’s recaptured the town of Nerab in Idlib province. Nerab sits just west of Saraqib and the M5 highway, both recently seized by the Syrian army with Russian help. The SNA rebels say their next target is Saraqib, though it seems likely the Syrian military will counterattack to try to retake Nerab first. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights at least 20 people were killed Tuesday in government airstrikes and artillery attacks on Idlib city as well as surrounding area, including ten in the town of Maarrat Misrin to the north.

In northeastern Syria, meanwhile, Turkish proxies have reportedly shut down a water pumping station in the border town of Ras al-Ain. That leaves an estimated 460,000 people without water, including people in displaced persons camps and the al-Hol camp for Islamic State prisoners. It seems unlikely they would have committed this human rights violation without Turkish approval. It’s not clear why they’ve done it or what they intend to gain.

YEMEN

USAID says it plans to stop distributing humanitarian aid to Houthi-controlled parts of Yemen next month, unless the Yemeni rebels stop interfering with the process. USAID and the United Nations have accused the Houthis of intercepting aid deliveries, while the Houthis insist they’ve only objected to a biometric aid distribution system that the UN wants to implement.

IRAQ

Iraqi police killed one protester and wounded 24 others in Baghdad on Tuesday.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

A ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad seems to be holding after several rounds of rocket fire from Gaza and Israeli airstrikes on PIJ facilities in both Gaza and Syria. The Israeli military says it’s reopened some roads and transit systems near Gaza but has left Gaza border crossings closed and is still barring Gazans from fishing offshore.

Meanwhile, new polling suggests that Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party is faltering ahead of Israel’s March 2 snap election and that the result may be yet another inconclusive election. In a survey from Israel’s Channel 13 News, Gantz’s party emerges with 32 seats compared with 33 for Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party. That’s a drop of four seats for Gantz from Channel 13’s previous survey, while Likud has remained steady, and it corresponds with two other polls released over the weekend that also show a slight Likud lead. Gantz is losing the head to head “who would make a better prime minister” battle with Netanyahu, 44 percent to 30 percent. Overall the poll shows Netanyahu and his traditional coalition partners five seats short of a majority, however, meaning that the likeliest path to forming a government will remain a grand coalition between Likud, Blue and White, and Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu—a coalition that Gantz refused to form after the last election.

In an effort to inject some last minute juice into his campaign, Netanyahu announced Tuesday that he’s reinstating a plan to build new Israeli settlements on the West Bank’s E-1 hill outside of Jerusalem. That plan is extremely controversial because, if brought to fruition, it would permanently divide the West Bank and cut it off from East Jerusalem’s Palestinian neighborhoods. It would foreclose on the possibility of any Israel-Palestine settlement, though admittedly the possibility of a settlement already looks pretty dim thanks to the Kushner Accords. The Trump administration had asked Netanyahu to back off on annexation and settlement talk to give the Accords time to percolate through the Arab world, so this is an interesting development. It’s unclear if Netanyahu got a green light from Washington before he made this announcement or if he went off on his own for political reasons.

EGYPT

Former Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak died on Tuesday, at the age of 91. In the spirit of not speaking ill of the dead, and because these newsletters are already long enough without adding eulogies, let’s leave it at that. The Egyptian government declared three days of mourning, though interestingly Egyptian media has also spent the day gently criticizing Mubarak’s 29+ years in power for its rampant corruption. That’s because the current Egyptian government doesn’t want anybody getting wistful about Mubarak’s reign in comparison with current dictator Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s administration, which has been more authoritarian in just about every way.

Mubarak visiting the Pentagon in 2000 (Defense Department photo via Wikimedia Commons)

IRAN

The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin reported Tuesday that senators Lindsey Graham (R-DC) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) are working on a “new Iran deal” that would as its centerpiece create a new international consortium to supply Iran and the other Gulf states with low enriched uranium to use as nuclear reactor fuel. Under their thinking, Iran would then have no excuse for maintaining its own uranium enrichment capability, and in return for giving that up entirely it would get limited sanctions relief. It wouldn’t get full sanctions relief, though—for that Iran would have to make other concessions on things like its missile program and support for regional paramilitary groups like Hezbollah and Iraqi militias.

I don’t want to spend much time on this because it’s never going to come to fruition. Indeed, it’s not supposed to come to fruition. Instead it is a bad faith offer of a deal Iran is guaranteed to reject, at which point hawks like Graham and Menendez can say “See? They won’t give up enrichment! They must be trying to build nuclear weapons!” and thus (they hope) move international sentiment against Iran. That could then destroy whatever remains of the 2015 nuclear deal and prevent a future presidential administration from rejoining that deal.

Why would Iran reject this deal? Well, consider that they already had a deal with the rest of the worl for full sanctions relief without giving up enrichment, and the US stabbed them in the back by withdrawing from it. Why should the Iranians believe that any new deal would be any more reliable? Graham and Menendez say they’ll craft this new deal as a “treaty” (as though the United States honors treaties scrupulously), rather than a less secure “agreement,” but for the Iranians that’s a distinction without a difference. Why should Tehran believe any guarantee that this nuclear fuel bank Graham and Menendez are proposing would remain available to them, that the US wouldn’t at some point take advantage of the situation to cut off Iran’s fuel supply? On top of that, uranium enrichment has become an issue of national pride for Iran, so domestic politics would make it very difficult for an Iranian government to accept an arrangement like this. Which, again, is the point.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

Ashraf Ghani has apparently agreed to the Trump administration’s request that he postpone his second-term inauguration so as not to exacerbate Afghanistan’s political crisis ahead of potential negotiations with the Taliban. The administration has pointedly refused to acknowledge Ghani’s officially declared victory in September’s presidential election, which has been challenged by runner-up Abdullah Abdullah, who’s also postponed the parallel inauguration he was planning to hold. Washington fears that another political showdown (these two did something similar after the 2014 election) will negatively impact the peace process.

INDIA

I suppose it’s appropriate that Donald Trump’s visit to India has coincided with a massive outbreak of anti-Muslim violence in New Delhi. At least 13 people have already been killed and 150 injured after two days of violence that began as a clash between groups supporting and opposing India’s controversial new citizenship law, which streamlines the process for people of all major South Asian religions except Islam. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who oversaw an anti-Muslim pogrom in 2002 when he was the governor of India’s Gujarat state and was the prime mover behind the citizenship law, doesn’t seem to be in a rush to contain the violence, and members of his police force have been witnessed collaborating with pro-citizenship law mobs attacking Muslim individuals and Muslim-owned businesses.

On the plus side, Trump and Modi did some Business Deals during Trump’s visit in arms sales, telecommunications, and energy. Sadly they were not able to complete a comprehensive trade deal, but they’ll presumably keep at it.

MALAYSIA

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s plan to extend his tenure as PM hit a small bump in the road on Tuesday when four political parties, including the main opposition and former ruling United Malays National Organization party, rejected the possibility of forming a new unity government under Mahathir and called instead for a new election. This doesn’t mean that Mahathir is going to lose his grip on the premiership, but things do look a little less certain than they presumably looked to him on Monday when he resigned in order to break up his current coalition. A unity government was the simplest and easiest way of ensuring that he remained in office. Now he’s either got to negotiate a new coalition or take his chances with the voters.

EAST TIMOR

East Timorese Prime Minister Taur Matan Ruak resigned on Tuesday after his governing coalition collapsed. Former PM Xanana Gusmao announced over the weekend that he was withdrawing support for Ruak and had formed a new six party coalition controlling 34 of the 65 seats in parliament. That coalition will presumably form a new government once Ruak’s resignation has become official.

CHINA

BNO News’s Wuhan coronavirus tracker has tallied 80,995 officially confirmed cases of the virus, with 2763 deaths. Attention continues to shift outside of China, which I know makes it weird that we’re still dealing with this story in the “China” section but bear with me. Most of the attention on Tuesday was focused on two countries: Iran and the United States. In Iran, speculation continues to run high that authorities are either not releasing the actual number of people infected or haven’t been able to diagnose everyone who’s been infected, because the death toll now stands at 16 amid only 95 acknowledged cases (including Iran’s deputy health minister, Iraj Harirchi). That’s an extremely high death rate compared with the way the virus has behaved elsewhere, hence the suspicion that there are more cases in Iran than the official number indicates. There is still another explanation, which is that sanctions have left Iranian hospitals uniquely unable to treat their patients.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared on Tuesday that Americans should start preparing for the spread of the coronavirus in the United States. The short-term risk of a major outbreak in the US is still low, but it’s looking more and more like we’re heading toward “uncontrolled pandemic” territory, hence the warning. In the meantime, uh…enjoy the ride?

Via Google

SOUTH KOREA

While Donald Trump’s new acting director of national intelligence, Richard Grenell, gained notoriety for the very undiplomatic way he handled his previous assignment as ambassador to Germany, Trump’s ambassador to South Korea, Harry Harris, has gotten less attention for an approach that has been equally troubling:

Since last fall, he has used his perch at the embassy, which sits like a fortress along Seoul’s famous Gwanghwamun corridor, to take South Korea to task, from the cost it is paying for U.S. bases to its desire to expand its economic and social contacts with the North. At a time when South Korea is struggling to maintain its sovereignty and diplomatic composure in the face of Trump’s policies, Harris has become the local enforcer of U.S. imperial and security interests.

His statements, unusual in tenor for a diplomat in any country, have drawn public opprobrium from Korean politicians from the left and right, and made Harris one of the most despised ambassadors the United States has ever sent to South Korea. His actions — and, strangely, his mustache — have even led some Koreans to compare Harris to the Japanese Governor-Generals of the colonial period. A few politicians have called for his removal.

AFRICA

LIBYA

Libya has now sustained over $2 billion in losses due to Khalifa Haftar’s decision to shut down most of the country’s main oil production facilities—the ones that are under the control of his “Libyan National Army.” Haftar made that move, which has reduced Libyan oil exports by 90 percent, in order to starve the rival Government of National Accord of financial resources and prevent it from paying the Syrian auxiliaries that Turkey has been sending to bolster its armed forces.

SOMALIA

US Africa Command says it has carried out an airstrike in Somalia in recent days that killed an al-Shabab leader who planned an attack early last month against a military base in Kenya that killed three US soldiers. Somali officials have identified a man killed in that strike as Mohamud Haji Sirad, an official in the country’s largest telecommunications firm. Africa Command says that its strike didn’t kill or harm any civilians. Soooooo, what’s happening here? Was Sirad both a senior al-Shabab commander and a local phone company manager? Did the strike actually kill two people but Africa Command is refusing to acknowledge it? Or did Africa Command just kill the wrong guy? It’s hard to say. Whatever really did happen, The Intercept’s Nick Turse points out that you probably shouldn’t believe Africa Command’s version of events:

During the first six months of 2019 alone, U.S. Africa Command tracked seven reports of American and allied attacks in Somalia that allegedly killed or wounded at least 18 civilians, according to internal AFRICOM documents obtained by The Intercept. But the U.S. does not acknowledge killing or wounding a single civilian in Somalia last year, according to AFRICOM spokesperson John Manley.

In fact, AFRICOM contends that hundreds of airstrikes and commando missions over more than a decade – aimed at members of the terrorist groups al-Shabab and the Islamic State – have caused only two civilian casualties in Somalia: a woman and a child killed in an airstrike near the central Somali town of El Buur on April 1, 2018.

New data released Tuesday by Airwars, a U.K.-based airstrike monitoring group, offers a stark rebuke to AFRICOM’s claims. The group contends that the number of civilian deaths may be as much as 6,800 percent greater than the command asserts.

US Africa Command says it’s reassessing “several allegations” in light of Airwars’ findings and will issue a response once that process is completed. I’m sure it will be as thorough and committed to the facts as everything else AFRICOM has been doing in Somalia.

MALAWI

Malawi will hold a new presidential election on May 19. The country’s Constitutional Court earlier this month threw out the results of last May’s election, which at the time appeared to return incumbent President Peter Mutharika for another term in office with just under 39 percent of the vote, due to concerns about the conduct of the election and its lack of a runoff round. Mutharika is appealing the ruling but for now things are going ahead as if the vote will happen, and this time it will include a runoff.

EUROPE

SLOVENIA

The Slovenian Democratic Party has concluded coalition talks with three other parties and its leader, Janez Janša, should be nominated as prime minister by President Borut Pahor on Wednesday. The new coalition should control 47 of the 90 seats in the Slovenian parliament. Outgoing Prime Minister Marjan Šarec resigned late last month in an effort to force a snap election because his minority government was being regularly thwarted in the legislature. Needless to say he won’t be getting that snap election now.

GERMANY

It is still unclear why a German man drove his car into a crowd of people at a Carnival parade in the town of Volkmarsen on Monday, injuring 61 people, but it does seem clear that it was a deliberate act. The driver reportedly appeared “satisfied” after the incident and even attacked a woman who responded to the incident to help treat the injured. Authorities seem to be looking into a psychological motive rather than a political one, which would presumably rule out terrorism though it’s still early in the investigation. They’ve increased security at Carnival celebrations just to be safe.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

Crippling US sanctions against Venezuela, which are contributing to an economy in which fully one third of the Venezuelan people are food insecure, have nevertheless done little by way of ousting President Nicolás Maduro. But lest you judge those penalties a failure, consider that while they haven’t gotten rid of Maduro, they have (according to the New York Times) forced him to transition the Venezuelan economy away from socialism and toward a very American-style form of crony capitalism:

As Venezuela’s once-mighty state firms grind to a halt, Mr. Maduro’s ministries have quietly handed back to private operators dozens of companies, including iconic hotels and sugar mills, that they had expropriated, according to a government adviser who helped draft the program.

Tracts of land expropriated by Mr. Maduro’s firebrand predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chávez, from the landowning elites in the name of the country’s “Bolivarian Revolution” are being leased to anyone willing to work them. Raids on private companies have given way to cordial meetings between ministers and business leaders.

The stringent labor laws that had barred companies from firing anyone without government approval are now disregarded as the administration turns a blind eye to dismissals and dismantles unions. Byzantine trade restrictions were replaced with tax holidays and export incentives.

The centerpiece of this transition has been an alliance between Maduro and Venezuelan oligarch Lorenzo Mendoza, a one time enemy of Maduro and Chavismo whose food company, Empresas Polar, is now the largest private corporation in Venezuela. Once considered a political threat to Maduro, Mendoza is now monetizing the rot, reducing pay and benefits for its workers while catering its products toward the sliver of wealthy Venezuelans who can still afford them. Sounds like another wonderful US success story in Latin America.

UNITED STATES

Finally, in his latest “The Long Version” newsletter, available right here at Substack, Jonathan Katz assesses just how haphazard the Trump administration’s efforts to prepare for the Wuhan coronavirus have been so far:

Coordination is not going well. Last week, hundreds of American passengers were let off the quarantined Diamond Princess cruise ship in Japan. The State Department rushed to get all of them home, not bothering to wait for the results of a viral test. When 14 tested positive at the last minute, officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, better known as the CDC, urged the State Department not to let the infected passengers fly back with the other 314. [Deputy Secretary of State Stephen] Biegun’s people ignored them.

Maybe his staff assumed the nativist president would not want to leave U.S. citizens stranded. Given Trump’s official position on the epidemic (“very much under control!”), and his general lack of patience for details, perhaps they thought they were better off not bothering him.

But predicting the reactions of a leader who rules by tantrum is always dangerous. When he heard the news, Trump threw a fit. The businessmen running the task force will have to expend even more energy guessing what their boss—the germophobe-in-chief—will want next time.