World update: January 11-12 2020

Stories from Oman, Iran, Libya, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

January 10, 49 BCE: Julius Caesar “crosses the Rubicon” by, well, literally crossing the Rubicon River and marching his army toward Rome. Caesar took the provocative action of bringing his army with him to the capital due to fears that he would be prosecuted by his political opponents without some kind of leverage on his side. The act kicked off a civil war between Caesar and Pompey (plus his traditionalist allies in the Roman Senate), that did much to usher in the end of the Roman Republic.

January 10, 1475: The Battle of Vaslui

January 11(?), 630(?): Muhammad conquers Mecca

January 11, 1942: In battles at Kuala Lumpur and Tarakan, the Imperial Japanese military wins major victories over Britain and the Netherlands, respectively. Tarakan was the more significant victory as the Japanese military was able to seize control over a substantial oil drilling and refinery operation as well as a major regional airfield. While the victory at Kuala Lumpur helped expand Japan’s control over Southeast Asia, the city was not nearly as large or important as it is today.

January 12, 1945: The Soviet Red Army begins its Vistula–Oder Offensive, a massive push into Poland involving over 2.2 million soldiers. The operation ended on February 2 with the defeat of German Army Group A, the successful conquest of most of Poland, and the liberation of several Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz. Although at one point Soviet forces had advanced close to Berlin with little or no remaining German defenses between them and the city, Marshal Georgy Zhukov opted to halt the advance and shore up his flanks against German attack.

January 12, 1970: “Operation Tail-Wind” ends with the surrender of the separatist Biafran army, bringing the 1967-1970 Nigerian Civil War (or the “Biafran War” if you like) to a close. Biafran rebel leader Odumegwu Ojukwu fled into exile on January 9 and the remaining leaders of the would-be country formally surrendered to Nigerian authorities on January 15.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

A Russian-Turkish negotiated ceasefire took hold in Idlib on Sunday and, while it’s early, so far the reviews seem mixed. Local sources say that Russian and Syrian airstrikes have ceased, but there are still reports of artillery strikes from both rebel and government-aligned forces. On Saturday, in a final pre-ceasefire flurry, government airstrikes across Idlib reportedly killed at least 17 people. Turkey is particularly interested in preventing more conflict in Idlib, since violence displaces civilians who then press against the Turkish border. But every past attempt to impose a ceasefire in Idlib has eventually failed and there’s little reason to think this one will be different.

IRAQ

At least four people were wounded Sunday in a rocket attack against Iraq’s Balad airbase, north of Baghdad. An Iraqi militia was presumably responsible. There are US personnel stationed at Balad but all the casualties seem to have been Iraqi.

The Trump administration is continuing to threaten retaliation if the Iraqi government moves to expel US forces from the country. The Wall Street Journal reported on Saturday that the administration warned Baghdad it could freeze the Iraqi central bank’s access to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, a step that could decimate the already weak Iraqi economy by preventing it from accessing oil revenues. At ResponsibleStatecraft.org, if you’re interested, Jim Lobe and I wrote about what increasingly looks like a new “Maximum Pressure” campaign directed at Iraq.

LEBANON

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Sunday called on Iranian allies to retaliate for the US assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani by helping to drive US military forces out of the Middle East. It’s unclear what Nasrallah has in mind but his goal suggests something more like an extended political pressure campaign than violent attacks. Iran already undertook its own retaliatory strike against two Iraqi military bases on Wednesday, but its leaders have also said that their ultimate response will be focused on seeing the US leave the region. Further violence could backfire and undermine that effort.

OMAN

Oman’s ruling Said family wasted little time naming a successor to former Sultan Qaboos b. Said, who passed away on Friday. Oman’s new ruler is Sultan Haitham b. Tariq Al Said, a cousin of Qaboos who has been serving as his Minister of Heritage and Culture since 2002. He was apparently named in the sealed envelope that Qaboos left behind in case the royal family couldn’t coalesce around a successor, which means they skipped over the coalescing part and just went straight for the envelope. He’s expected to deviate little from the path of neutrality and “no troubles” foreign policy that Qaboos followed, though it’s unlikely he’ll be able to replace Qaboos as a regional mediating force, at least initially, since much of Qaboos’s stature came from the longevity of his reign. He’s also probably going to face domestic challenges posed by a weak economy that the venerated Qaboos might have been able to avoid.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Trump administration plans to expel “at least a dozen” Saudi soldiers in the US to participate in military training programs. The move comes in the wake of a shooting last month at Naval Air Station Pensacola involving a Saudi student named Mohammed Alshamrani, which seems to have been motivated by extremist ideology. The expulsions do not appear to be directly linked to that shooting but do involve personnel who either have extremist sympathies or have been trading in child pornography.

IRAN

Whatever your expectations about the response to the Soleimani assassination were, if they were anything like mine then it’s possible that the shooting down of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 is completely upending them. The Iranian government’s Saturday morning admission of culpability, after several days of denial (even though Iranian officials apparently knew what had happened pretty shortly after the plane went down), sent thousands of Iranians back into the streets over the weekend in angry anti-government protests. The protests initially involved mostly students in Tehran, but the crowds are growing and there have been reports of demonstrations in other cities around the country. It is premature to say that these protests have squashed any “rally around the flag” effect from the Soleimani killing, and far too premature to dub them an existential threat to the Iranian government, as some DC foreign policy types have been doing this weekend. But there’s no question that this is not what Iranian leaders wanted to see happening so soon after the outpouring of national unity that accompanied Soleimani’s funeral.

In a related story, UK ambassador Rob Macaire apparently attended an anti-government rally on Saturday evening, or at least he was detained by Iranian authorities at one. Both the UK and German governments have criticized his detention, while the Iranian government is demanding to know what he was doing at the protest and members of Iran’s Basij militia are protesting outside the UK embassy in Tehran and demanding its closure.

In the wake of the Soleimani strike (whose “imminent attack” justification is continuing to fall apart, by the way), there are continued signs that—even if Iran’s proxies are still angry—the US and Iranian governments are stepping back from the brink. For example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reportedly told State Department diplomats to “limit any contact” with the Iranian exile group Mujahedin-e-Khalq, some of whose paid supporters—Rudy Giuliani, in particular—have close links to the Trump administration and/or Donald Trump himself. James Dorsey suggests this is part of an effort to distance the administration from groups devoted to regime change in Tehran. Links to those groups undermine the administration’s stated goal of negotiations with Iranian leaders. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, meanwhile, agreed that it’s necessary to deescalate tensions with the US during a visit by Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim b. Hamad Al Thani.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

A Taliban roadside bomb in Kandahar province killed at least two US soldiers on Saturday and wounded two others.

TAIWAN

Taiwanese voters reelected President Tsai Ing-wen by a substantial margin on Saturday, giving her around 57 percent of the vote compared with runner up Han Kuo-yu’s roughly 39 percent. Tsai’s reelection chances didn’t look nearly so rosy a few months ago, but rhetorical pressure from Beijing, possibly coupled with events in Hong Kong, drove voters away from the more reconciliation-minded Han and toward Tsai’s stronger assertion of Taiwan’s autonomy/independence. So far at least the Chinese government doesn’t seem to have much to say about what is surely not their preferred outcome.

Returning champion Tsai Ing-wen (Taiwanese government via Wikimedia Commons)

NORTH KOREA

Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, has told Axios that the administration has reached out to Pyongyang about resuming negotiations that broke off last fall. The administration believes there’s an opening because the “Christmas gift” that the North Koreans promised to deliver to Washington last month—expected to be a nuclear weapons test—hasn’t manifested.

AFRICA

LIBYA

Reversing its previously stated position, Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” announced on Saturday that it would in fact declare a ceasefire in response to a joint Turkish-Russian request. The ceasefire halts the LNA’s offensive against Tripoli and could open space for mediation efforts by the German and Russian governments…and it’s over:

Both Russia and Turkey have small forces in the country, with Russia backing Haftar through the use of mercenaries and Turkey supporting the GNA with military advisers. The Turkish ministry of defence insisted the ceasefire was holding, adding that the situation in Libya was “calm except for one or two isolated incidents”.

However, both Libyan sides claimed otherwise. “The [GNA] militias violated the truce on more than one battlefront, with all types of weapons,” said the LNA commander, Al-Mabrouk al-Gazawi, who added that forces were waiting for further instruction from LNA general command. The army also claimed to have downed a Turkish drone.

The GNA said in a statement it had recorded violations by “the aggressor’s militias” but that it “renews its commitment to the ceasefire, and emphasises the need for commitment from the patrons of this ceasefire and the United Nations mission in Libya in applying it optimally”.

I’m exaggerating a little. Every ceasefire has its initial hiccups, and both Haftar and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj are expected to sign an official ceasefire document in Moscow on Monday. But ceasefires are difficult to implement and that goes extra in a conflict like Libya’s, where both the LNA and pro-government forces are really more collections of militias than coherent armies. Even if Haftar and Sarraj are fully onboard with this ceasefire, which is debatable, neither has the kind of firm control on its fighters to make sure that it sticks.

GUINEA-BISSAU

Guinea-Bissau’s Supreme Court on Sunday affirmed, on a technicality, President-elect Umaro Sissoco Embaló’s victory in that country’s December 29 runoff. Runner up Domingos Simões Pereira challenged the result, alleging fraud, but the court ruled that he should have filed that challenge with elections officials.

MALI

French President Emmanuel Macron is mighty peeved that there are people in the Sahel who don’t appreciate the help he’s trying to provide them in terms of battling Islamist extremists. He’s so peeved that he’s summoned the leaders of the G5 Sahel countries—whom he apparently regards as subordinates in some way—to France on Monday to face his imperial wrath or whatever. Anti-French sentiment is particularly apparent in Mali but it’s been seen in Niger and Burkina Faso as well, with people calling for an end to the French assistance mission, Operation Barkhane. Macron wants the leaders of those countries to account for their “ambiguity toward anti-French movements and sometimes comments made by politicians and ministers,” which seems like a long-winded way of saying he’d like them to force those anti-French types to stifle themselves.

Macron’s threat is that unless his feelings are soothed he’ll actually give those people what they want and withdraw French forces from the region. The concern is that without French assistance (and a smaller US assistance operation that would likely be terminated as well in that event), Islamist groups like Mali’s Jamaʿat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin and Niger’s Islamic State in West Africa/the Greater Sahara will sweep across the region unchecked and become major global terrorist threats. But the reality is probably more complicated than that. The French presence in the region actually reinforces governments and structures that feed the popular resentment on which Islamist extremism feeds. A French withdrawal might actually force a political and social realignment that undermines and weakens JNIM and ISWA. Moreover, the French government’s contention that these groups are global, rather than regional, threats rests on some extremely debatable assumptions. Oh, and Macron is probably bluffing anyway.

NIGER

The death toll in Thursday’s attack on an army base in western Niger has climbed precipitously, from 25 to at least 89. The number may be higher than that, as some of the soldiers were apparently buried before they could be counted. There’s still been no claim of responsibility but it’s likely that ISWA carried out the attack.

EUROPE

MALTA

Malta is about to get a new prime minister. On Sunday, lawyer Robert Abela was the surprise winner of an internal election to succeed outgoing PM Joseph Muscat as leader of Malta’s Labour Party, which means he’ll be sworn in as Muscat’s successor on Monday. Muscat promised to resign last month amid revelations that people in his inner circle may have been involved in the 2017 murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. Abela will have the responsibility to see the Galizia investigation through and to somehow restore public trust in a government that’s mired in corruption scandals.

FRANCE

French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has offered to drop, or at least suspend, the most contentious aspect of Macron’s pension reform plan, raising the retirement age from 62 to 64. Philippe’s offer is likely a tactical move to separate more moderate unions, for whom the retirement age has been the main/only bone of contention with respect to Macron’s reform plans, from unions that are more resistant to the whole package. So far it seems the unions are still working out how to respond to Philippe’s offer but things may be clearer on Monday.

AMERICAS

BOLIVIA

Former Bolivian President Evo Morales says that he did call for Bolivians to form “armed militias,” as heard in a recording that’s apparently been leaked to Bolivian media. But he says he wasn’t talking about taking offensive action against the government, but rather was calling for the formation of citizen defense groups to defend against attacks by Bolivian security forces. Morales says that by “arms” he didn’t mean guns but rather more basic defensive weapons “like slingshots.” Bolivia’s ruling junta has accused Morales of fomenting rebellion from his exile (first in Mexico and now in Argentina), even as it has given Bolivian security forces impunity to deal with Morales supporters as they see fit.

UNITED STATES

Finally, over at Tom Dispatch national security analyst Allegra Harpootlian looks at the unending expansion of the US drone program in the wake of the Soleimani assassination:

We’re only a few days into the new decade and it’s somehow already a bigger dumpster fire than the last. On January 2nd, President Trump decided to order what one expert called “the most important decapitation strike America has ever launched." This one took out not some nameless terrorist in a distant land or a group of civilians who happened to get in the way, but Major General Qassem Suleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force and the mastermind of its military operations across the Middle East.

Among the thousands of ignored American drone strikes since the 9/11 attacks, this was not one of them. In the wake of the assassination, we’ve seen: the Iraqi parliament vote to expel American forces from their country; all the Democratic presidential candidates make statements condemning the strike; thousands of protestors around the world take to the streets; and both chambers of Congress introduce resolutions aimed at curbing the president’s expanding war powers. Even though there is still so much we don’t know, one thing is for sure. Everything we thought we knew about drone warfare — and America’s wars more broadly — is about to be thrown out the window.

When I first started writing this piece, I was simply reflecting on a decade of U.S. drone warfare and the problems it had spawned. But when this world-altering news broke, I immediately started thinking about how I got here, as well as how my country could continue to recklessly breed chaos and destruction throughout the Greater Middle East.