World update: January 9 2020

Stories from Iran, Sudan, Ukraine, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

January 8, 1926: Abdulaziz ibn Saud is crowned king of the Hejaz, adding that kingdom to his original crown in the Nejd. This personal union lasted for six years and became the nucleus of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. In 1932, Ibn Saud unified the Hejaz and the Nejd (as well as al-Hasa, east of the Nejd) into a single state, to which he later added Asir, Najran, and Jizan after a 1934 war with Yemen.

January 9, 1822: Prince Pedro of Portugal, Brazilian regent for his father King João VI, rejects an order from Portugal to dissolve Brazil’s government and return home. The order had been arranged by Portuguese general Jorge de Avilez, who wanted to force Pedro out of Brazil and govern the country himself, but when Avilez subsequently mutinied he and his forces were defeated and forced to leave Brazil. This incident kicked off the series of events that led to Pedro’s coronation as Emperor Pedro I of Brazil in October and the subsequent Brazilian War of Independence.

Pedro’s coronation as emperor, by 18th-19th century French painter Jean-Baptiste Debret (Wikimedia Commons)

January 9, 1916: The Gallipoli Campaign ends

January 9, 1917: The Battle of Rafa ends with the UK defeating the last Ottoman defenders in Egypt. Rafa marked the close of the Sinai portion of World War I’s Sinai/Palestine Campaign, which began with an Ottoman attack on the Suez canal in late January 1915 and would end with the Allied capture of Aleppo in October 1918. This battle relatively small engagement consisted mostly of the British army surrounding and wearing out a much smaller Ottoman garrison. Rafa drove the Ottomans out of Egypt and cleared the way for Britain to invade the Levant.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

This is a newly developing story but Russian media is reporting that there’s been a ceasefire declared in Syria’s Idlib province, negotiated by Russia and Turkey. The details are unclear at this point and, hey, Idlib has been down this road several times and none of its previous ceasefires have managed to stick. So some skepticism would be warranted here.

On Wednesday, at least four Turkish soldiers were killed in a car bombing on a security checkpoint in northeastern Syria. The Kurdish YPG militia is presumably the main suspect, but no group has taken responsibility and the Islamic State is still hanging around.

Unless the United Nations Security Council manages to get past its internal divisions on the matter, the UN’s cross-border humanitarian relief mission in Syria is going to end at midnight Friday. Russia wants to cut the number of border crossings used in the operation from four to two—eliminating a crossing from Jordan and another from Iraq while leaving two from Turkey—and wants to cut from 12 months to six months the length of time before the operation will have to be reauthorized. Other council members have offered to close just the Jordanian crossing and give Russia the six month window it wants, but there’s still a pretty good chance Russia (and China) would veto a proposal like that.

IRAQ

Somebody reportedly fired a rocket on Wednesday in the Dujail area of Iraq’s Saladin province, not too far from Baghdad. It’s unclear who was responsible, but the rocket apparently landed relatively close to the Balad airbase, which houses US forces. So an Iraqi militia seems like a reasonable guess.

Musings on Iraq’s Joel Wing says that Iraqi militias have used the US assassinations of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis as an excuse to attack protesters in southern Iraq:

There were three confrontations in Dhi Qar and Basra between Hashd elements and demonstrators. The first was on January 5 when a funeral procession for Suleimani and Muhandis attacked the sit-in site in Basra city. Hashd elements fired on the camp and burned tents. That same day, another funeral group attempted the same thing in Nasiriya. They were stopped by the demonstrators and again there was shooting, this time killing one and wounding four others. News of the casualties incensed the protest area and people proceeded to march to the Hashd headquarters in the city and burned it down. Guards at the building tried to drive people away using gunfire and killed another person, and wounding two more. Two days later on January 7, the Nasiriya site was set upon again by a group of mourners for Suleimani and Abu Muhandis. Again, they tried to force their way into the sit-in site leading to a confrontation, shooting, another six dead, and more wounded. Tents were also set on fire. These appeared to be local agitation by Hashd groups to provoke and attack the demonstrators. Iran and some in the Hashd have called the protests U.S. led because they have criticized Tehran’s influence in Iraq. These types of incidents have become common place as a result.

One important thing to note here is that there are the protesters whose movement the United States claims to support, but which its actions now threaten to upend. The Soleimani strike has made the environment for those protests much more difficult and even riskier than it had been previously.

There have been some suggestions in Washington that if the Iraqi government does move to expel US forces from the country, the US could reposition its forces within Iraqi Kurdistan. Here’s the president of the Kurdistan Democratic Party to disabuse people of that notion:

There probably is a circumstance under which the KRG would agree to a move like this, but it would involve the US guaranteeing Kurdish independence and, well, if you think the region is destabilized now, that would be a whole new ballgame.

SAUDI ARABIA

A UN investigation has determined that Yemen’s Houthi rebels could not have carried out the September 14 attack on Saudi oil facilities at Khurais and Abqaiq, despite the group’s claims of responsibility. Mostly this seems to be based on an analysis of the range of the weapons used in the attack, which was insufficient for them to have come from Yemen, and of the direction of the attack, which came from the north rather than the south. This isn’t news exactly, as the Houthi claim seemed questionable even when they made it, but it does support (though obviously it’s not in any way conclusive) the case that Iran was directly responsible.

IRAN

(If you’re looking for discussion of the Ukrainian passenger jet that crashed in Iran on Wednesday I’ve put that under “Ukraine,” below, to limit how jumbled this update gets.)

In terms of the aftermath of the Soleimani killing and the Iranian response to it, things were relatively calm on Thursday for a change. But signs out of both Washington and Iran made it clear that the crisis isn’t over yet, even if it’s paused. In the US, Donald Trump told reporters that he’s “substantially” increased sanctions on Iran. He didn’t go into specifics, which is par for the course with Trump, but sanctions are at the root of current tensions so more sanctions won’t do much to calm anything down.

In Iran, meanwhile, several senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officers have made statements suggesting that Wednesday morning’s missile strikes in Iraq are only a first step in their retaliation for Soleimani’s killing. But IRGC officers threatening the US is a pretty routine thing, so it’s unclear how much to make of these statements. If there are further retaliations, they might not necessarily come from Iran itself (the rocket attacks of the past couple of days in Iraq suggest that Iran-aligned militias there are still looking to strike at US targets) and might not necessarily involve kinetic violence. Cyber attacks are one possibility, but ultimately Iran’s best revenge (and the fulfillment of Soleimani’s main objective) would be to see the United States military leave the Middle East. The Soleimani attack has made the US position in Iraq less tenable than it’s been in quite some time, and any further Iranian attacks might risk swinging the pendulum back in the other direction.

At The Nation, James Carden looks at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the DC think tank that’s been exerting considerable influence over the Trump administration’s Iran policy:

Consider the following scenario: A Washington, DC–based, tax-exempt organization that bills itself as a think tank dedicated to the enhancement of a foreign country’s reputation within the United States, funded by billionaires closely aligned with said foreign country, has one of its high-ranking operatives (often referred to as “fellows”) embedded within the White House national security staff in order to further the oft-stated agenda of his home organization, which, as it happens, is also paying his salary during his year-long stint there.

As it happens, this is exactly what the pro-Israel think tank the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) reportedly achieved in an arrangement brokered by former Trump national security adviser John Bolton.

The FDD senior adviser on the National Security Council was Richard Goldberg. And the think tank, the FDD, funded by prominent American billionaires such as the financier Paul Singer and Home Depot magnate Bernard Marcus, has relentlessly pushed for a recklessly militaristic US policy against Iran and in the Middle East generally.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

US forces apparently killed the leader of a Taliban splinter group in an airstrike in Herat province on Wednesday, but they also killed more than 60 civilians along with him. At least that’s what provincial officials are saying. The strike targeted Mullah Nangyalay, a senior figure in a faction that broke away from the main body of the Taliban after the US killed its former leader, Mullah Omar, back in 2013.

PAKISTAN

Pakistan is among the many countries finding themselves caught in the middle of US-Iranian tensions. The Diplomat’s Umair Jamal explains what’s at stake for Islamabad:

In both statements, the focus on staying “neutral” in the conflict is where Pakistan aims to keep its role in the ensuing conflict. Pakistan’s fears are understandable: in the past, Washington has coerced Pakistan to serve its interests aimed at isolating Iran in the region. While Pakistan has conformed due to fears of becoming a target of U.S. hostility, the relentless condition of hostility between Tehran and Washington has undermined Pakistan’s economic interests to a great extent. Irrespective of Pakistan’s constraints, the former considers Iran a potential partner in the field of energy, transport, and trade. Iran has 17 percent of the proven gas reserves in the world and for Pakistan to find a sustainable solution to its growing energy needs, open trade links with Iran are essential.

Moreover, the states in the Gulf region, particularly Saudi Arabia, have pressed Pakistan to isolate the latter’s vision of opening energy corridors and regional trade routes with Iran. For the past three decades, sectarian tensions in Pakistan due to the Saudi-Iran rivalry remained a highlight of Pakistan’s domestic security challenge. Economically, Pakistan’s dependence has grown on the Gulf states – a bitter reality that Islamabad has to live with as the cooperation is hardly mutually beneficial. For decades, to sort out recurring fiscal deficits, Pakistan has looked to the Gulf states for help. However, the help has always come with strings attached and, most of the time, these strings are focused on isolating Iran’s footprint in the region and constraining Pakistan’s ability to run an independent foreign policy.

CHINA

Chinese health officials think they’ve uncovered the virus that’s infected dozens of people across Asia over the last couple of weeks and that originated in the city of Wuhan. It appears to be a new coronavirus, and while researchers say they need to do a lot more work to really understand how it works (let alone to develop some sort of treatment), so far it doesn’t seem to be easily transmitted between humans. So maybe it’s not the next SARS after all.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok traveled Thursday to the Nuba Mountains region of South Kordofan province for talks with Abdelaziz al-Hilu, one of the leaders of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Movement-North. Hamdok, who is leading Sudan’s transitional government ahead of elections scheduled for late 2022, has made ending the country’s multiple insurgencies one of his main objectives in office. His government gave itself six months to settle those conflicts when it took power in August, and its time to meet that deadline is obviously running out. The SPLM-N is a remnant of the larger Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the main rebel force involved in the 1983-2005 civil war that led to the independence of South Sudan. Rebels in the provinces that didn’t become part of South Sudan have kept up their resistance under the SPLM-N banner.

LIBYA

That Libyan ceasefire that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed on Wednesday seems like it might be DOA. The “Libyan National Army” of warlord Khalifa Haftar rejected any ceasefire calls on Thursday and said it intends to continue its offensive to capture Tripoli.

MALI

Militants attacked a base used by UN peacekeepers in northern Mali with rockets on Thursday, wounding at least 20 people. Northern Mali is a hotbed for Islamist insurgents. They’re mostly linked to al-Qaeda, but Islamic State-West Africa is also active in the region, especially along the Niger border.

NIGER

Speaking of which, militants also attacked the Nigerien military in the border town of Chinagodrar on Thursday, killing at least 25 soldiers while losing at least 63 of their own number. This attack was almost certainly IS, which has become particularly fond of medium-to-large scale attacks against Nigerien military positions in the border area.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

Vladimir Putin, who’s been on the road for a while now, dropped by Crimea on Thursday to observe some weapons testing, including of Russia’s new hypersonic Kinzhal missile. The Kinzhal is supposed to be so fast that it can’t be intercepted by missile defense systems, so I guess it has that going for it. Of more significance, I would think, is the fact that Putin held this weapons test in Crimea, which is not strictly speaking Russian territory as far as most of the rest of the world is concerned. The statement is hard to miss.

UKRAINE

Although Iranian officials continue to say that a Ukraine International passenger jet that crashed shortly after takeoff on Wednesday crashed due to a technical failure of some kind, there is an emerging consensus among Western political leaders that the craft was in fact shot down, though probably not on purpose. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been particularly vocal about the crash, because 63 of the 176 people killed in it were Canadian citizens. He claims that he’s got “intelligence”—unspecified, naturally, but from both allies and Canadian agencies—supporting a missile strike as the cause. The New York Times is running a video it claims was taken in Iran on Wednesday that does appear to show something hitting something else in the air and causing an explosion. Really conclusive stuff, I know. Circumstantial evidence for a sudden calamity like a missile strike comes from the fact that the crew apparently did not radio for assistance, as might be expected in the case of an engine failure or some other kind of malfunction.

There is a plausible scenario here in which the 737-800 was mistaken for a large US military aircraft by Iranian air defense radar, and a horrible error ensued. The Iranian military claims its air defenses (based on Russia’s S-300 system) are very advanced but who knows, and anyway mistakes can happen even with advanced systems. Iranian air defenses were undoubtedly on high alert Wednesday morning over the possibility of a US retaliatory strike, and their hair-trigger status could have led to disaster. I’m not saying that’s what happened, just that its plausible. It’s puzzling to me why the Iranians would even let a passenger aircraft take off in the circumstances that prevailed early Wednesday morning, but I’m not an air traffic controller or anything so what do I know? If this is what happened, you can add these 176 people to the body count run up over 40 years of US-Iranian hostility. Maybe it’s a stretch to lay these deaths at Donald Trump’s feet, but it is also quite possibly the case that they’d still be alive if he hadn’t ordered the hit on Soleimani.

The Iranians say they’ve recovered the plane’s black boxes but they appear to have been damaged, which could make the investigation more difficult. They have, however, apparently invited the US National Transportation Safety Board to participate in the inquiry, which is surprising. The NTSB could help, especially since Boeing is an American company, though sanctions might interfere with its ability to really get involved.

POLAND

After being snubbed in terms of speaking roles, Polish President Andrzej Duda says he will not attend a ceremony in Israel later this month meant to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp by the Soviet Red Army. Poland’s right-wing government is highly sensitive to accusations of antisemitism and to talk around Poland’s World War II history, especially as it relates to Polish collaborators. As a result of that sensitivity it has clashed with the Israeli government on more than one occasion over the past few years. Duda is particularly upset that he won’t get a chance to speak while Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will.

FRANCE

Tens of thousands of union members and supporters protested against Macron’s planned pension “reforms” on Thursday. Unions have been demonstrating against Macron’s work-longer-for-less deal for over a month now, and as tends to be the case with these movements the French public is tiring of it and opinion polls are starting to swing in the government’s direction. Support for the workers remains strong—an estimated 450,000 or so people turned out across the country—but definitely appears to be fading—some 800,000 turned out for similar protests last month.

UNITED KINGDOM

Northern Ireland may be circling a deal to restore home rule, after the UK and Irish governments on Thursday announced that they’d reached a bilateral agreement to restore the provincial government. That deal still has to pass muster with Northern Ireland’s political parties, chiefly the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, but DUP seemed cautiously supportive of the new proposal. Sinn Féin hasn’t commented yet.

AMERICAS

UNITED STATES

The US House of Representatives on Thursday voted to restrict Donald Trump’s ability to wage war against Iran under the War Powers Act. The lack of consultation prior to the Soleimani assassination seems to have put Congressional Democrats on edge, and the shoddy briefings the administration gave on Wednesday have even raised some Republican ire. There is a small chance that the resolution could pass the Republican-controlled Senate, but that still seems like a long shot.

Finally, with a new Pew poll conducted across 33 countries showing that Donald Trump may well be the least popular national leader in the world, Andrew Bacevich considers how the United States frittered away the end of the Cold War:

Thirty years later, perhaps it’s time to assess just how well the United States has fulfilled the expectations President Bush articulated in 1990. Personally, I would rate the results somewhere between deeply disappointing and flat-out abysmal. 

Bush’s “circle of freedom” invoked a planet divided between the free and the unfree. During the Cold War, this distinction had proven useful even if it was never particularly accurate. Today, it retains no value whatsoever as a description of the actually existing world, even though in Washington it persists, as does the conviction that the U.S. has a unique responsibility to expand that circle.

Encouraged by ambitious politicians and ideologically driven commentators, many (though not all) Americans bought into a militarized, Manichean, vastly oversimplified conception of the Cold War. Having misconstrued its meaning, they misconstrued the implications of its passing, leaving them ill-prepared to see through the claptrap in President Bush’s 1990 State of the Union Address.