World update: February 7-9 2020

Stories from Afghanistan, Ireland, El Salvador, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

February 7, 1992: The 12 member states of the European Community—Belgium, Denmark, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, the United Kingdom, and West Germany—sign the Maastricht Treaty, deepening European integration and helping to create the European Union. The EU now consists of 27 member states, though one of these founding dozen, the UK, has very publicly just quit the bloc.

February 8, 1250: The Battle of al-Mansurah begins.

February 8, 1963: Iraq's Ramadan Revolution

February 9, 1943: US Army Major General Alexander Patch confirms that Japanese forces have retreated from Guadalcanal, marking the end of the six month long Guadalcanal Campaign. Japan’s retreat allowed the US to establish bases on Guadalcanal and the island of Tulagi to support further Pacific operations. The campaign is regarded as one of the major turning points in World War II’s Pacific Theater, helping to put Japan on the defensive.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

The Syrian military spent the weekend pushing north and south along the important M5 Aleppo-Damascus highway, and as of Saturday reportedly needed to secure only another 30 kilometers of road before the whole thing was back in government hands. That figure had presumably shrunk by Sunday, though I don’t know by how much. Parts of the M5 have been controlled by rebels almost since the outbreak of Syria’s civil war, so capturing it would be a significant milestone in addition to being an important strategic objective for the government’s war effort. Syrian forces are advancing both from Aleppo, where they captured the village of al-Eis on Saturday, and from Saraqib in Idlib province. Since they’re able to work this operation from two directions they should have the entire highway in hand fairly quickly, barring some outside intervention. The AP reported Sunday that the two forces had already met in the middle, though they hadn’t quite seized the entire M5 yet.

If there is an outside intervention it will come from Turkey, which has been sending reinforcements into northwestern Syria while warning that it will take action unless the Syrians cease their offensive. I remain unconvinced that Turkey is actually prepared to take that step unless either its own forces come under attack again or the refugee situation gets significantly worse. The Syrians could avoid the former by, well, not attacking Turkish soldiers, and they could avoid the latter by halting once they’ve got the entire M5 under their control. The Syrians could even probably get away with moving west to seize the M4 highway to Latakia, as long as they don’t threaten Idlib city. That’s the main population center in rebel-held northwestern Syria and it’s a refugee crisis waiting to happen.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli soldiers shot and killed a Palestinian man on Friday in the West Bank town of Tulkarm, as he was protesting against the Kushner Accords. He had allegedly thrown an explosive of some kind at the soldiers. That makes at least four Palestinian protesters killed since the Trump administration triumphantly rolled the Accords out last month, a figure that’s likely to increase and especially likely to increase if the Israeli government moves ahead with plans to annex the Jordan Valley and its illegal settlements in the West Bank. Which it still seems to be doing, despite obeying the Trump administration’s wishes to slow the process down.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Saturday that his government is in the process of putting together a map of the territory it plans to annex once Washington decides it’s OK to move forward. In part this is the next step in the plan, as the Accords talk about a US-Israeli mapping process before any annexation takes place. But it’s also a campaign gambit for Netanyahu, who was hoping to actually implement the annexation before Israel’s snap election in March but will have to hope that giving people a nice map of what’s to come will suffice to boost his electoral chances.

IRAN

Iran’s planned satellite launch fizzled out on Sunday, when the Simorgh rocket took off successfully but was not able to release its Zafar-1 communications satellite payload with sufficient speed to enable it to establish orbit. It was another failure for the Iranian space program after three launch failures last year, though this one seems to have gotten closer to success than those previous efforts so it could be a sign of progress.

ASIA

ARMENIA

Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan is attempting to sideline unfriendly judges on his country’s Constitutional Court via a referendum scheduled for April 5. The referendum will ask voters to suspend the seven court members who were already in place when Pashinyan came to power as a result of Armenia’s 2018 political revolution. Pashinyan has argued that the court is interfering with his attempts to prosecute former Armenian officials on corruption charges, including former justice minister Hrayr Tovmasyan—who, uh, happens to be the president of the court nowadays.

AZERBAIJAN

In a stunning outcome, Azerbaijan’s ruling New Azerbaijan party has apparently won Sunday’s snap parliamentary vote. I haven’t been this shocked since losing the ring toss game at the last carnival I attended. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev dissolved parliament and called for a new election in December, possibly as a way of rearranging the legislature and his party so as to begin transitioning authority to his heir apparent and wife, Mehriban Aliyeva.

KAZAKHSTAN

At least ten people were killed in an outbreak of inter-communal violence in southern Kazakhstan on Friday. The clashes, in a village called Masanchi, were between ethnic Kazakhs and an ethnically Hui Chinese minority group called the Dungans. Dozens of people were injured in the fighting and there are reports of substantial property destruction. So far, at least, Kazakh authorities have offered no information as to what caused the fighting.

AFGHANISTAN

At least three people—two US soldiers and one Afghan soldier—were killed Saturday in Nangarhar province in what authorities are calling an “insider attack.” A joint Afghan-US unit apparently completed a training exercise when one of the Afghan soldiers opened fire on the group. That attacker, who was reportedly killed in the shootout, has been classified as an “Islamist,” but neither the Taliban nor the Islamic State seem to have claimed the attack as yet and there’s some question as to whether that was really his motive.

KASHMIR

A separatist group called the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front led a general strike on Sunday to mark the anniversary of the execution of Kashmiri militant Afzal Guru in 2013 as well as the 1984 execution of Maqbool Bhat, founder of the National Liberation Front that the JKLF considers its forerunner. The strike naturally drew Indian police out in force and prompted authorities to once again shut down internet access—which has been heavily restricted since August—across the region. Indian authorities are still holding several Kashmiri leaders in what amounts to indefinite detention, having arrested them at the same time it shut the internet down. Both of those steps were taken to preempt unrest over the Indian government’s decision to strip Kashmir of its constitutional autonomy.

THAILAND

A Thai soldier spent the weekend on a killing spree in the city of Nakhon Ratchasima before he was killed by police on Sunday, after killing at least 29 people and wounding dozens more. Thai authorities are classifying this as a mass shooting motivated by some sort of land deal gone wrong, and as far as I know there’s no evidence to contradict that narrative. So it’s not strictly speaking the kind of thing we cover here. But it was big news over the weekend, and it is true that Thailand’s civilian-but-also-military government has come in for some criticism due to an awkward public appearance at the scene of the shooting by military coup leader-turned-prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha. It seems unlikely that this will become an issue for Prayut but I suppose anything is possible.

CHINA

The number of people infected by the Wuhan coronavirus shot up to at least 40,553 confirmed cases worldwide over the weekend, with the death toll now standing at 910 (all but two of those in mainland China). That means this outbreak is now considerably deadlier than the SARS outbreak of the early 2000s, though this virus’s fatality rate is much lower than SARS. Sunday’s death toll of 97 was the highest single day number of fatalities since the outbreak began.

TAIWAN

The Chinese air force conducted what it calls an “island encirclement drill” on Sunday, which is the technical term for flying some of its military aircraft around Taiwan. Beijing conducts these drills when it wants to make a show of force with respect to its claims over Taiwan. Presumably the reelection of pro-independence Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen last month prompted this operation. Because of the Wuhan outbreak, Taiwanese officials have also been critical of Beijing over the past several days over the Chinese government’s refusal to allow Taiwan to participate independently in the World Health Organization. So that also might have prompted the drill. The Taiwanese military scrambled aircraft to shadow their Chinese counterparts, but fortunately the whole thing seems to have ended without serious incident.

AFRICA

LIBYA

The United Nations-sponsored military-to-military summit involving leaders from Libya’s Government of National Accord and the “Libyan National Army” concluded in Geneva on Saturday having achieved…an agreement to meet again later this month. Which isn’t nothing, I guess. Fighting has tapered off in Libya over the past few weeks, though it hasn’t stopped entirely. Representatives from eastern and western Libya, as well as from southern Libya, also met in Cairo on Sunday to discuss ways to rebuild the Libyan economy, but I haven’t seen anything yet about how those talks went. They were presumably going to focus on the blockade that the LNA has put in place on Libyan oil exports. The LNA is demanding the removal of Turkish proxies and other militias from Libya—basically asking the GNA to disarm itself—as a condition for reopening the exports.

ALGERIA

A suicide bomber attacked an Algerian army barracks in the southern border region of Bordj Badji Mokhtar on Sunday, killing one soldier. Algeria hasn’t seen a suicide bombing in several years, as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has focused its efforts on cultivating affiliates in the Sahel, so this is potentially a troubling sign. Bordj Badji Mokhtar sits right on the Malian border, where AQIM affiliate Jamaʿat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin is active. So it may have just been spillover from Mali rather than a sign of things to come.

MALI

French forces involved in Paris’s Operation Barkhane in the Sahel killed at least 30 Islamist militants in several operations in Mali’s Gouma and Liptako regions on Thursday and Friday. The Liptako region, near the Nigerien border, is known to have an active Islamic State presence, while the Gouma operations may have targeted al-Qaeda elements.

KENYA

Donald Trump met with Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta at the White House on Thursday and the two later suggested that they intend to negotiate a free trade deal. This would be the first free trade deal the US has ever negotiated with a sub-Saharan African state, though Trump doesn’t always follow through on the things he talks about so we’ll see if it actually happens. The Trump administration would undoubtedly view a free trade deal with Kenya as an ideal chance to counter growing Chinese influence across Africa, though Kenyatta himself has warned against trying to force African leaders to serve as pawns in a great power competition. The African Union may insist that any deal between the US and Kenya also extend to the entire African Continental Free Trade Area, which could be a deal breaker for Trump given his loathing for multilateral institutions.

Trump with Kenyatta (White House photo via Flickr)

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Allied Democratic Forces fighters reportedly killed at least eight people in the town of Mangina, in North Kivu province, in an attack on Friday. The death toll may be considerably higher than that as there are around 20 people reported missing.

SOUTH AFRICA

The South African government is trying to boost its arms industry by weakening legal requirements that its weapons exports be inspected to ensure that they are not transferred to third parties upon receipt. The new legal standard would reportedly only require verification through a vague “diplomatic process.” The current standard has curtailed South African arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE, whose governments a) consider the inspections a violation of sovereignty and b) likely transfer purchased arms to third parties on the regular, especially in Yemen.

EUROPE

IRELAND

Saturday’s Irish parliamentary election produced a banner result for leftist republicans everywhere:

Sinn Féin will try to form a government in Ireland after apparently winning more votes than any other party in Saturday’s general election – a historic result that upended the political system.

The party leader, Mary Lou McDonald, told cheering supporters on Sunday that a “revolution” had occurred and she would try to form a ruling coalition with other parties. “This is no longer a two-party system,” she said.

Sinn Féin, once a pariah for its IRA links, won almost a quarter of first-preference votes, possibly pipping Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, two centrist rivals that have taken turns ruling Ireland for a century.

It rode a wave of anger over homelessness, soaring rents and hospital waiting lists as well as disillusionment with the traditional political duopoly.

The outcome was particularly humiliating for Fine Gael and its leader, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. It also leaves Irish politics staring at a morass. The votes are still being counted, but because Sinn Féin only ran about half as many candidates as either Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, even if it finishes with a higher percentage of votes than the other two parties it will still control fewer seats than either. So it probably can’t lead the formation of a government itself. And since both of the center-right parties ruled out forming a coalition with Sinn Féin during the campaign, that leaves…well, I don’t really know.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil could theoretically join forces, but who leads in that partnership? They could each try to take a stab at forming their own coalitions, but with Sinn Féin controlling as many seats as it will control, there may not been many mathematical pathways to the 81 seat majority either would need. If nobody can cobble together a coalition, then of course that means another election is in store, and those lucky ducky Irish voters will get to do this all over again.

AMERICAS

EL SALVADOR

Salvadoran politics are now in a crisis, as police and soldiers occupied the national legislative assembly building on Sunday to demand more funding for their operations. At issue is a $109 million loan request by President Nayib Bukele, which needs the assembly’s approval. Bukele wants to use that money to better equip police and the Salvadoran military to improve their ability to deal with crime. Opposition legislators say they want more details about the loan before voting on it. The right-wing Bukele, who was elected as the underdog outsider who was going to restore Salvadoran democracy in last February’s presidential election, very democratically gave the assembly a seven day ultimatum to approve the loan on Friday. Then in an extreme show of democracy he had his security forces lock the legislature down on Sunday. It’s all very simple and non-dictatorial.

UNITED STATES

Finally, Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer follows up on his previous reporting with news that the Trump administration is interfering with a congressional investigation into the erosion of US diplomacy:

Two top lawmakers said the U.S. State Department is blocking their efforts to investigate allegations of management and ethics issues at one of the United States’ largest and most important embassies in Africa, according to a letter obtained by Foreign Policy.

Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel and Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote a letter to a senior State Department official raising concerns about the U.S. Embassy in South Africa. For nearly three months, the State Department responded to their requests for information on “management and ethics practices” at the embassy with “incomplete” information that “failed to address many aspects of our queries,” the letter said.