World update: February 29-March 1 2020

Stories from Syria, Malaysia, Slovakia, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

February 28, 202 BC: Former rebel leader Liu Bang is crowned Emperor Gaozu, ending the Chu-Han war and marking the start of the Han Dynasty. The Han ruled China until 220, except for a brief interlude from the years 9-23.

February 28, 1991: US President George H. W. Bush declares that Iraqi forces have withdrawn from Kuwait and announces a ceasefire. Bush’s announcement marked the end of the Gulf War but only the start of a decade-long US obsession with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

February 29, 1992: For obvious reasons fewer things have happened on February 29 than on most days in history, so we’ll go with the start of the two-day Bosnia and Herzegovina independence referendum. With just over 63 percent turnout the vote was nearly unanimous, with over 99 percent supporting independence. March 1 is commemorated as Independence Day in Bosnia and Herzegovina today.

March 1, 1811: The Massacre at the Citadel

March 1, 1896: An Ethiopian army under Emperor Menelik II decisively defeats an outmanned and under-prepared Italian army under Oreste Baratieri, the governor of Italian Eritrea. Their defeat forced the Italians and their local allies to retreat to Eritrea and brought the First Italo-Ethiopian War to an end with an Ethiopian victory. The Italians would, of course, be back a few decades later.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

The Turkish military decided to press its luck over the weekend with a new major offensive in northwestern Syria. Called “Operation Spring Shield,” the incursion is a continuation and escalation of Turkish activity in the area that’s been underway since at least 33 of Ankara’s soldiers were killed in Idlib province on Thursday. I’m going to pause here and note the lie that Turkey has adopted regarding that incident, and no it’s not that the death toll was much higher than 33 even though it very likely was. No, the important lie here is that those Turkish soldiers were killed by a Syrian artillery bombardment rather than by Russian airstrikes. When the incident happened virtually every report attributed those deaths to the latter. But Turkey has insisted on the former because Turkey can respond to Syrian attacks in a way it could not if it acknowledged that the Russians were responsible. Also relevant here is that this weekend marked the end of a deadline Ankara gave the Syrian military to withdraw from Idlib province, and of course that hasn’t happened.

So, let’s see if we can tally everything up. Turkish strikes in Idlib province killed at least 48 pro-government fighters in Idlib province between Friday and Saturday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Turkish forces have bombed an airport in the town of Nayrab in Aleppo province (not to be confused with the town of Nerab in Idlib, which the rebels recaptured several days ago). The Turks have undertaken multiple drone strikes against Syrian forces and on Sunday reportedly shot down two Syrian aircraft over Idlib. Syrian forces have shot down three Turkish drones and Damascus says it’s closed the airspace over Idlib province, though at this point pro-Damascus forces are clearly on defense.

So now the question is whether, or for how long, Russia plans on allowing the Turks to continue this offensive. So far Moscow has held off, probably hoping to negotiate a way out of this situation that doesn’t imperil its ties with Ankara. But it is inconceivable to think that the Russians would simply stand off now and allow Turkey to undo what Russian intervention in Syria has achieved over the past four-plus years. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Saturday asked the Russians to back off and let him deal with the Syrians, but if there’s no deal forthcoming then at some point there will most likely be a Russian response.

YEMEN

Yemen’s Houthi rebels reportedly captured the city (well, “city” might be overstating it a bit) of Hazm, the capital of Jawf province, on Sunday. The Houthis and pro-government forces have been battling it out around Hazm for several weeks so this is a pretty significant breakthrough. It not only helps the Houthis secure Jawf, which can alleviate pressure on the city of Sanaa, but it also opens up a northern front by which the Houthis can attack Marib province, which has been the main pro-government stronghold from which to launch attacks against Houthi-held northern Yemen.

IRAQ

Iraqi police killed at least one person and wounded 24 more during an anti-government protest in Baghdad on Sunday. Later, two rockets landed in Baghdad’s Green Zone, causing no casualties.

While that was going on outside the Iraqi parliament building, inside legislators were busy punting a second time on a confidence vote to establish prime minister-designate Mohammed Allawi’s would-be government. As was the case on Thursday, enough MPs boycotted the vote to prevent a quorum. With parliament facing a deadline Monday, Allawi then announced that he was withdrawing his candidacy for the premiership. As if that wasn’t chaotic enough, outgoing/caretaker PM Adel Abdul-Mahdi has previously said he was leaving office on Monday whether or not parliament had chosen his successor. Which means that by Monday Iraq may not have a prime minister at all, though Abdul-Mahdi could possibly be convinced to change his mind.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Somebody attempted to fire a rocket out of Gaza on Sunday evening, and while it never made it out of the enclave an Israeli military response could still be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, Israeli voters will try for a third time on Monday to elect a parliament that can actually form a government. Elections last April and last September both ended inconclusively and neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Benny Gantz, leader of the main opposition Blue and White Party, was able to put together a majority coalition. There’s a strong possibility that the third time will not be the charm, especially in the wake of recent polls showing that a several vote Blue and White advantage has evaporated and it’s now about level with Netanyahu’s Likud Party. There are a lot of variables that could move the outcome in unpredictable ways, like Netanyahu’s corruption indictment and the Kushner Accords, which might consolidate right-wing support behind Netanyahu but could also motivate Arab Israelis to vote in larger numbers either for Gantz or for the Arab Joint List (or they might have no effect).

It will probably remain the case that the only workable outcome is a unity government of sorts between Likud and Blue and White, with Avigdor Liberman’s secular nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu party thrown in for good measure. But Gantz refused to form such an arrangement with Netanyahu after September’s election and he’s based most of his campaign message on the need to move on from the PM and his scandals. Gantz and Netanyahu don’t really disagree on much ideologically (especially not as concerns the Palestinians), so scandal and character has been the only real way for Gantz to distinguish himself in opposition.

BAHRAIN

Human Rights Watch’s Aya Majzoub says that despite repeated international condemnation Bahrain’s human rights record just keeps getting worse:

In October, we found that Bahraini authorities were denying high-profile political prisoners urgently needed medical care, in some cases putting their lives in danger. In one example, the health of Abduljalil al-Singace, a leading opposition figure serving a life sentence for his role in the 2011 protests, has deteriorated significantly.

Al-Singace had polio as a child and needs crutches to walk. His daughter told us that he has severe chest pain, numbness in his fingers, and shaking in his left hand. Prison authorities have refused to take al-Singace to his medical appointments because he refuses to wear a prison uniform or shackles, which he considers humiliating. International human rights experts have said that using restraints on elderly or infirm prisoners who do not pose an escape risk can constitute inhuman or degrading treatment.

We have also documented routine torture in Bahrain’s prisons, especially during interrogations. Detainees describe electric shocks, suspension in painful positions, forced standing, extreme cold, and sexual abuse.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The US government and the Taliban did indeed sign their peace accord on Saturday, signaling that maybe America’s longest war is finally approaching an end. Maybe. It’s hard to really say because the agreement leaves a lot of things up in the air. What it does specify is a staged US troop withdrawal, from 13,000 to 8600 within 135 days and then potentially to a full withdrawal within 14 months. That’s a faster timetable than I’d expected but it’s nevertheless the case that the withdrawal will be staggered to coincide with the Taliban meeting certain milestones with respect to issues like its ties to al-Qaeda and other extremist groups and with the progress of negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. So 14 months is probably far too optimistic and, it must be said, it’s far from guaranteed that those next steps are going to be completed successfully.

US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban deputy leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar signing the deal in Doha, Qatar, on Saturday (State Department photo via Flickr)

On top of that, a “full” withdrawal may very well not mean what you or I (or anybody with a passing familiarity with the English language) might think it means. The Quincy Institute’s Adam Wunische suggests there’s good reason to be skeptical:

Trump has ordered military withdrawals and failed to deliver before, notably in Syria late last year, and all indications point to a repeat in Afghanistan. Reports indicate that the U.S.–Taliban deal includes “secret annexes” in which the Taliban has agreed to allow the United States to keep special forces troops in the country to continue counterterrorism operations against groups like ISIS. Even if these reports are unfounded, there is significant support among leaders and foreign policy experts in Washington for such an indefinite presence—which President Trump also favors. An open letter to the U.S. secretaries of state and defense, signed by 22 members of Congress, expressed opposition to the deal. Even Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, who has called for an end to endless wars, still supports continued deployments of special forces troops as if they do not count. However, the use of special forces certainly counts as war given they are being used with increasing frequency and scope since the 1990s, often fulfilling roles that more conventional forces sometimes fill.

Aside from clear indications of the intent to maintain at least a counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan indefinitely, other factors also suggest that troops may be going nowhere fast. In recent comments, Trump has said that any level of disruption in intra-Afghan negotiations or instability in the region would justify a halt to any withdrawal or a reversal of the withdrawal altogether. These comments should be taken seriously given the likelihood that the negotiation process will be long, difficult, and could easily be spoiled at any point by any number of actors.

That last part could be considered ironic because, as Wunische notes in his piece, there’s little reason to think that leaving US forces in Afghanistan will help secure a better outcome. If the US military could stand up a capable, well-functioning Afghan government it would have long since done so by now. On the other hand, if the US military leaves the Taliban might be forced to confront the fact that its ideology is deeply unpopular among the Afghan people.

Already there appears to be a pretty significant problem emerging. The deal the US signed with the Taliban on Saturday apparently obligates the Afghan government to release 5000 Taliban prisoners as an opening show of good faith ahead of negotiations. Only nobody seems to have bothered to make sure the Afghan government was OK with that provision. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani rejected that idea on Sunday, arguing that a prisoner swap has to be one of the outcomes of intra-Afghan talks, not a prerequisite to them. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doesn’t seem to think that’s going to be an issue, but I don’t if that’s because he thinks the Taliban won’t mind that the deal is already being undermined or because he thinks he can force Ghani into compliance. Either way he seems to be making a big assumption.

As this agreement does not mark the end of Afghanistan’s war or even that we’re particularly close to the end, I don’t know that any eulogies are warranted. But I do think Spencer Ackerman is right to point out that this deal—or one that was harder on the Taliban, really—could have been negotiated ten or more years ago, avoiding a whole lot of death and destruction. The Taliban offered to surrender two months into the war, but the US rejected that offer because it wasn’t unconditional. There were excellent arguments made in 2001 for not invading Afghanistan, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find any government that could resist the urge to Do Something after an event like the 9/11 attacks. It’s the decisions that have turned that conflict into an 18-plus year saga, at the cost of tens of thousand of lives lost and millions of lives worsened, that are unquestionably inexcusable.

MALAYSIA

I’m going to be real honest with you here—I have no idea what’s happening in Malaysia right now. When we signed off on Friday (well, Saturday morning in Malaysia, I guess) Mahathir Mohamad had just declared that he and his frenemy Anwar Ibrahim had put their governing coalition back together, after Mahathir broke it apart with his resignation way back on Monday. What started out as (probably) a bid to avoid handing the prime minister’s office over to Anwar under the terms of their coalition agreement had nearly cost Mahathir his job, but at the last minute the most important figure of the last 40 years of Malaysian politics had saved his own bacon. And then Malaysian King Abdullah of Pahang announced he was picking somebody else to be his new prime minister.

In a somewhat surprising move, given that just a couple of days earlier he’d suggested that no candidate to replace Mahathir (including Mahathir himself) had a majority of support in parliament, Abdullah decided to go ahead and name former interior minister Muhyiddin Yassin as PM. Muhyiddin has the backing of several parties, chiefly the former ruling United Malays National Organization party and the Malaysian Islamic Party. He’s not very well known, but is a conservative Muslim and Malay nationalist who’s been a long-time Mahathir ally before shooting his shot (and apparently scoring) amid this week’s turmoil. At 72 he’s positively youthful compared with the 94 year old Mahathir. Perhaps most importantly, he’s not Mahathir and he’s not Anwar, so his candidacy offers the possibility that the little soap opera drama those two allies-turned-enemies-turned-allies-turned-??? have been playing since the mid-1980s might finally be over.

Or it might not, because Mahathir doesn’t seem inclined to give up. He insists that his coalition with Anwar is back together, which would give him the support of a majority of MPs, and he’s calling for an emergency session of the legislature to test whether he or Muhyiddin has enough votes to be PM. Parliament is scheduled to reconvene on March 9, but Mahathir is arguing that any delay gives Muhyiddin time to bribe Mahathir-supporting legislators into changing sides. At stake is the multi-ethnic coalition Mahathir was leading versus what would likely be a very Malay-centric government led by Muhyiddin. Also potentially at stake is the fate of former Malasyian PM Najib Razak, currently on trial for corruption related to the massive 1MDB scandal. Muhyiddin and Najib do not like one another—Muhyiddin was Najib’s deputy prime minister and was canned after criticizing Najib over the scandal—but Najib still has supporters in the UMNO who may push for leniency if they’re able.

CHINA

BNO News has now tracked 89,068 cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with 3045 deaths. The number of new cases in mainland China increased somewhat on Saturday, mostly due to an outbreak in Wuhan’s prison system, but declined again on Sunday. Elsewhere, the Iranian government now acknowledges 54 coronavirus deaths amid 978 infections, though suspicions linger that both of those official figures are much lower than the actual numbers. Authorities in Paris were forced to close the Louvre on Sunday after workers walked off the job due to fears about the virus, and in the US a man in Washington state became the first American fatality due to the virus.

AFRICA

GUINEA-BISSAU

As chaotic as Malaysian politics are right now, they may pale in comparison with what’s happening in Guinea-Bissau, which now finds itself with two presidents and two prime ministers. That’s at least one too many of each. What happened? Well, back in December, while we were on holiday break, former prime minister Umaro Sissoco Embaló defeated the candidate of the hitherto ruling African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC), Domingos Simões Pereira, in Guinea-Bissau’s presidential runoff. Pereira had “won” the first round of the election last November, but with a little over 40 percent of the vote he couldn’t avoid a second round. Pereira alleged fraud, which is weird for the candidate of the ruling party but OK, and on January 22 election officials confirmed Embaló’s victory.

You might figure that should have ended things, but then we wouldn’t be talking about it if that were true. Instead, Pereira has continued to insist that Embaló’s victory was illegitimate and still has a case pending before the country’s Supreme Court over the matter. He’s been demanding that Embaló’s inauguration be postponed until the court has ruled on that case. Embaló took the oath of office anyway on Saturday, but in an attempt to forestall that Pereira’s PAIGC allies (who control parliament) appointed their parliamentary leader, Cipriano Cassamá, as Guinea-Bissau’s interim president on Friday. Embaló has also named a new prime minister, but there’s still a PAIGC-backed government in place and, as you can tell, it’s unclear whether or not Embaló has the authority to sack it.

EUROPE

SLOVAKIA

Slovak voters handed the conservative Ordinary People and Independent Personalities party (OLaNO) and its anti-corruption message a resounding victory in Saturday’s parliamentary election, ousting the ruling Direction – Social Democracy (Smer-SD) party from power. Ordinary People took 25 percent of the vote to finish with an estimated 53 seats in Slovakia’s National Council, 23 shy of a majority and 34 more than the party had before the vote. Smer-SD finished a distant second with 18.3 percent and 38 seats, a loss of 11. The extreme right-wing People's Party Our Slovakia underwhelmed, meanwhile, finishing in fourth place with only 8 percent and 17 seats, a gain of three.

Ordinary People leader Igor Matovič thus has the inside track to be Slovakia’s next prime minister, though he’ll obviously need to form a coalition to get those extra 23 seats, and there are other obstacles still standing between him and the PM’s office. Matovič says he’s open to forming a coalition with any party other than Smer-SD and Our Slovakia. If he’s especially successful the coalition could clear the 90 seat super-majority threshold that would allow it to consider constitutional changes, though that’s a long shot.

GREECE

The Turkish government says that some 18,000 refugees have already taken advantage of its decision to reopen the proverbial door to Europe, and many thousands more are expected to join them in the coming days. Europe, which absolutely has the capacity to accept those people, is of course not willing to admit them. The Greek government reported on Sunday that it had already blocked some 10,000 migrants from entering via Turkey over the previous 24 hours, using tear gas among other compassionate methods. The Bulgarian government has reportedly bolstered its border security but I haven’t seen any reports yet of major clashes there. In sending migrants to the border, Turkey is trying to alleviate its own domestic refugee pressures and to force European nations to intervene in the conflict in northwestern Syria (see above). So far, Europe doesn’t seem to signaling any willingness to get involved in Syria.

IRELAND

New polling could provide new impetus for Irish political parties Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to come to some accord over the formation of a new government. A Sunday Times survey by pollster Behaviour & Attitudes finds that if the Irish election were to be done over, Sinn Féin would build substantially upon the support it got in last month’s vote, winning 35 percent of the vote (up from 24.5 percent) to Fianna Fáil’s 20 percent (down from 22.2 percent) and Fine Gael’s 18 percent (down from 20.9 percent). Coupled with the fact that Sinn Féin would be running with a full slate of candidates a second time around, that result would produce a decisive victory for the party. With that information at hand, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are planning to hold a conference next week, along with Ireland’s Green Party, to see if there’s enough common ground to form a coalition.

AMERICAS

URUGUAY

New Uruguayan President Luis Lacalle Pou took office on Sunday, ending 15 years of center-left governance. Lacalle Pou narrowly defeated the incumbent Broad Front party’s candidate, Daniel Martínez, in November’s runoff after finishing second in the first round in October. He’s promised to Get Tough on Crime and Spend Responsibly, so good luck with the austerity and the militarized police I guess. Broad Front was fairly centrist, but the election of the center-right Lacalle Pou is another indication that Latin America’s Pink Tide is well and truly over.

UNITED STATES

Finally, the Project on Government Oversight’s Mandy Smithberger argues the Pentagon’s willingness to accept a “cut” in next year’s budget is mostly fictional:

Many other proposed “cuts” are actually gambits to get Congress to pump yet more money into the Pentagon. For instance, a memo of supposed cuts to shipbuilding programs, leaked at the end of last year, drew predictable ire from members of Congress trying to protect jobs in their states. Similarly, don’t imagine for a second that purchases of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the most expensive weapons system in history, could possibly be slowed even though the latest testing report suggests that, among other things, it has a gun that still can’t shoot straight. That program is, however, a pork paradise for the military-industrial complex, claiming jobs spread across 45 states.

Many such proposals for cuts are nothing but deft deployments of the “Washington Monument strategy,” a classic tactic in which bureaucrats suggest slashing popular programs to avoid facing any cuts at all. The bureaucratic game is fairly simple: Never offer up anything that would actually appeal to Congress when it comes to reducing the bottom line. Recently, the Pentagon did exactly that in proposing cuts to popular weapons programs to pay for the president’s wall, knowing that no such thing would happen.