World update: February 4 2020

Stories from Afghanistan, Morocco, Bolivia, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

February 3, 1509: The Battle of Diu

February 3, 1966: The unmanned Soviet spacecraft Luna 9 becomes the first man-made object to make a soft, recoverable landing on the moon. The craft then sent back a series of photographs of the lunar surface—obviously the first ever taken from that vantage—before losing contact on February 6.

February 4, 1789: In the inaugural Electoral College in US history, George Washington is elected the first President of the United States. Washington’s election was “unanimous” in the sense that he received the support of at least half of the electors in each of the ten states that participated, for a total of 69 out of 138 votes case. John Adams finished second with 34 votes and thereby became vice president. New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island didn’t participate—the latter two because they still hadn’t ratified the Constitution, and New York because its legislature failed to choose its slate of electors in time.

February 4, 1861: Representatives of seven US states—Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina—meet in Montgomery, Alabama, to drawn up a preliminary constitution for a new secessionist nation. Texas would soon join once the results of its February 1 referendum were tabulated. The “Montgomery Convention,” as the meeting is sometimes known, formed the basis of the future Confederate States of America.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan spoke on Tuesday and agreed to try to deescalate tensions in northwestern Syria in line with previous agreements they’ve made. Those previous agreements all seemingly went out the window on Monday, when Syrian forces killed several Turkish soldiers in an artillery bombardment and the Turks responded with a counter-strike in which they claimed to have “neutralized” more than 70 pro-government fighters. In their competing readouts on the call, the Russians said that Erdoğan pledged to be more active in rooting out extremist groups in Idlib province while the Turks said that Erdoğan made it clear that Turkish forces will defend themselves from any further attacks. Basically they seem to have agreed to disagree, which means that the situation may calm a bit over the next several days but will inevitably ramp up again at some point.

News of the call came amid a report by The New Arab that rebels had recaptured a village called Nayrab or Nerab, southeast of Idlib city. Nerab sits on Syria’s M4 highway, which connects Aleppo with Latakia and is one of the most important arteries in the country. That the rebels have apparently retaken it is much less important than the apparent fact that it had briefly fallen into government hands in the first place. That would mean the Syrians have advanced as far north as Saraqib and are getting very close to Idlib, the main population center in northwestern Syria. The fighting in northwestern Syria has already displaced some 520,000 people, according to the United Nations, and if it gets close to Idlib city that number could skyrocket.

Nerab’s position relative to the recently captured Maarrat al-Numan, Saraqib, and Idlib city (Google Maps)

IRAQ

Muqtada al-Sadr’s decision to yet again turn on anti-government protesters has now led to confrontations between those protesters and his militia fighters, adding another very unwanted front to Iraq’s political turmoil. Sadr has thrown his support behind new Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Allawi, whose appointment over the weekend has been met mostly with disdain by the demonstrators.

The Iraqi government is trying to reduce the country’s dependence on imported fuel. For one thing there’s no reason a country like Iraq should be importing fuel, and developing a reliable domestic energy supply could help address the myriad grievances of the Iraqi public. For another thing, if Iraq were more self-sufficient it would be less vulnerable to regional tribulations like the US-Iran conflict. However, getting people to switch over to domestic energy supplies is apparently proving difficult:

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The European Union expressed its opposition to the Kushner Accords on Tuesday in a statement issued by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell. In his comments, Borrell criticized the Accords for imposing settlements on multiple “final status” issues that can realistically only be decided through actual negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The Trump administration has already shown a willingness to put its finger on the scales in Israel’s favor, of course, most notably with its decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. The idea, if there even is an idea behind all of this, is not so much to jump-start negotiations as to foreclose on the need for them by prejudging all the major issues in Israel’s favor. The Accords just build on that precedent.

As lopsided as the Accords are, they’ve reportedly led to some rancor between the administration and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That’s because the administration, in the person of Jared Kushner himself, has been leaning on Netanyahu not to immediately annex the Jordan Valley and Israel’s colony-settlements in the West Bank. The Accords envision that annexation and when they were unveiled last month there was no indication that the US would prevent Netanyahu from acting now to make it a reality. But Kushner has decided that a sudden annexation would look bad even by Trump administration standards, and Netanyahu has acquiesced to holding off until at least Israel’s snap election in March. Which undermines much of the boost the Accords were expected to give Netanyahu in that election.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

New polling suggests that, assuming it negotiates a peace deal with the United States, the Taliban has an uphill battle ahead if it wants to convince the Afghan people to return to the way things were before the US invaded in 2001:

A survey by the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies examines, for the first time, the people’s views on regime type in the country. The survey, which was conducted in 34 provinces of Afghanistan, found that over 68 percent of respondents prefer the post-2001 political system compared to the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. Over 80 percent of these respondents say they support and endorse the legitimacy of a political regime where the head of the state and the country’s leaders are directly elected by the people in a free and fair election. Over 80 percent of these respondents also support elements of a democratic regime such as women’s rights and liberties, social equality, and freedom of expression.

This finding shows that the people of Afghanistan support an electoral democracy and refuse the Taliban’s Emirate. It also challenges the conventional wisdom that suggests democratic values and processes are alien to and not supported by the people of Afghanistan, due to the tribal structure of the society. According to this assumption, democratic decay, on the one hand, and the growth of the Taliban, on the other, are outcomes of the people’s unfamiliarity with the Western notion of electoral government and their support for tribal and religious mechanisms of governance and legitimation. The new survey does not confirm this assumption. It shows that the past two decades of practicing democracy through voting, media, and civil society activities have significantly influenced people’s political choices. Despite the post-2001 political system’s inability to produce an effective government, the people still prefer it to the Taliban’s Emirate.

These results are fairly remarkable, inasmuch as the government the United States set up in Afghanistan after 2001 has been a dysfunctional mess. It makes a pretty powerful case for the flaws of electoral democracy. And yet a large majority of the Afghan people still prefer it over what the Taliban are offering.

MYANMAR

The United Nations International Court of Justice issued a preliminary ruling last month ordering the Myanmar government to take all possible steps to protect the Rohingya from further (alleged) genocidal acts. On Tuesday, the UN Security Council opted to do nothing to enforce that ruling, ensuring that it has no practical effect. Myanmar is a Chinese ally/dependency, and so the Chinese delegation threatened to veto even a relatively toothless statement.

CHINA

The BNO News agency’s Wuhan coronavirus tracker says that there are 24,553 cases of the infection worldwide as of Tuesday. The virus’s death toll has risen to 492, 490 of them in China.

AFRICA

MOROCCO

Axios reported Monday that the Israeli government is pushing the Trump administration to recognize Morocco’s claim on Western Sahara, an act that would be almost as risible as its recognition of supposed Israeli ownership of the Golan or much of the West Bank. In return, Morocco would normalize diplomatic relations with Israel, which would be a big feather in Netanyahu’s cap. Western Sahara is on the UN’s list of non-self governing territories. Morocco has claimed it for…well, pretty much forever, really, but especially since Spain abandoned its colonial claim there in 1975. But the Sahrawi people aren’t necessarily all on board with the idea of becoming Moroccans. The UN has been arranging a referendum to decided Western Sahara’s status for almost 45 years now so I’m sure they must be about ready to hold it.

GUINEA

Guinean President Alpha Condé on Tuesday confirmed that he will proceed with plans to amend the Guinean constitution in order to gain himself another term in office. Condé has scheduled a referendum on the changes to coincide with next month’s parliamentary election, which Guinea’s opposition parties look set to boycott. Which means he’s likely to win the vote, even though there seems to be widespread public opposition to extending his tenure.

Condé visiting the State Department in 2014 (State Department photo via Flickr)

EUROPE

NORWAY

The Russian government on Tuesday accused Norway of violating a 1920 treaty governing questions of sovereignty over the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. The 1920 Svalbard Treaty made the archipelago Norwegian territory but allowed all of its signatories the right to engage in commercial activity there. Today dozens of countries have signed onto the treaty, but the only one that takes advantage of it is Russia, which has a coal mining operation in Svalbard. Moscow alleges that the Norwegian government has been treating Russian nationals on Svalbard unfairly and that it has been implementing policies—the expansion of exclusive nature preserves, for example—to limit Russia’s commercial activities.

Svalbard highlighted in red (Google Maps)

AMERICAS

BOLIVIA

Eight candidates have registered for the May 3 election to replace former Bolivian President Evo Morales. Current junta leader Jeanine Áñez will head into the vote as the incumbent, but she’s probably not the favorite to win assuming the vote is fair. That would probably be Luis Arce, the candidate of Morales’s Movement for Socialism party, who if nothing else should benefit from the fact that there are seven other candidates all running for the same anti-Morales vote. However, that’s not to say Arce is likely to win the presidency. Polling is still pretty preliminary, but right now it shows Arce winning the first round but facing a runoff. He could find himself in trouble in that situation, if the opposition vote manages to coalesce around whoever winds up finishing in second place.

Of course, this all assumes that Áñez permits a real election, which given her admittedly brief track record in office so far seems like a big assumption.

Morales, meanwhile, revealed on Monday that he’s planning to run for the Bolivian Senate, despite his exile in Argentina and the fact that he likely faces arrest if he returns to Bolivia unless Arce wins the election. There’s a good chance the junta will disqualify him from running on the basis that he’s no longer living in Bolivia, but if he is on the ballot that would certainly make the election more interesting.

UNITED STATES

Finally, if you’ve ever dreamed that the United States might one day use nuclear weapons in combat again and bemoaned the fact that doing so would almost certainly trigger a nuclear war and the collapse of human civilization, boy to I have some good news for you. Maybe. The Trump administration has green lit the deployment of a low yield nuclear warhead, euphemistically called “survivable,” in submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Many of the same people who brought you “we’ll be greeted as liberators” have decided that these kinds of nuclear weapons can actually be used in battle, and because they’re “only” about as powerful as the atomic bomb the US dropped on Hiroshima in World War II, they won’t cause an adversary to retaliate with a full scale nuclear strike. Ideally they’re not meant to be used so much as to serve as a deterrent against Russian tactical nuclear weapons. But since they’ve already got the farcical “survivable” label attached to them, the psychology about using these weapons as opposed to using strategic nuclear devices is going to be fundamentally different. What could go wrong?

Well, plenty, really. And if you’re among the majority (I hope) of us who aren’t craving a little nuclear war as a treat, then this development should be pretty alarming. For one thing, if these devices were used it’s not really clear how they’d be used or what they’d be used to target. And that’s just scratching the surface of the problem:

Second, launching low-yield missiles would create a so-called “discrimination problem.” Since US nuclear submarines will carry both the low-yield and the full-size options, it would be impossible for a potential adversary to determine which kind of warhead a ballistic missile would be carrying until it impacted, leaving no reasonable room to recognize the comparative nuance of a low-yield strike. With a very short window to decide where and how to retaliate, an enemy may just as well assume the worst, and choose a full-sized response.

Third, launching a ballistic missile from a submarine risks revealing that submarine’s location instantly, making it an extremely high value target for a rapid enemy response. Since American ballistic missile submarines are primarily tasked with a “survivable second strike” deterrence role, divulging the whereabouts of any of them at the beginning of a nuclear war would be foolish.

Such tactical circumstances not only invite a huge degree of risk when it comes to mission success, but also provide a likely avenue for rapid enemy escalation—the very opposite of the low-yield warhead’s declared mission. Without confidence and clarity in each of these areas, the use of a low-yield nuclear weapon may in fact produce a much greater amount of destruction, even before the warhead has reached its target.

Finally, critics worry that military planners will be tempted to use the low-yield warhead not for deterrence, but for a first strike. Such concerns were initially dismissed out of hand, but recent news coverage gives them more credibility.

See, while these low-yield devices are meant to serve a deterrent function when it comes to another nuclear state like Russia or China, military guys seem to get weak in the knees about the possibility of actually using them against non-nuclear adversaries, like Iran. Probably not good! Then factor in the fact that these devices are part of an escalating, and expensive, arms race and you have a weapon that quite literally only a defense contractor could love.