World update: July 15 2019

Hey, I realize it’s been a while since we were together, so if this update runs a little longer than usual please forgive me. As I always do when I’ve been on an extended break I’ll try to limit this update as much as possible to things that have happened today or over the past couple of days, and only dive back further than that if absolutely necessary. If there’s an important story from the last couple of weeks that you think I’ve missed, well, you’re probably right—I was on vacation. But the nice thing about the newsletter is that it comes out just about every day and you can let me know if I’ve let something important slide past me. Either hit the comments or drop me a line:

Email FX

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

July 15, 1099: The Siege of Jerusalem ends with a Crusader victory.

July 15, 1410: The union of the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania defeats the knights of the Teutonic Order in the Battle of Grunwald (located in western Poland). One of the largest battles of medieval Europe, Grunwald saw the hitherto powerful Teutonic Order go into a decline from which it never recovered and ushered in a period during which Poland-Lithuania became the dominant power in central and eastern Europe.

July 15, 1799: An officer on Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign, Captain Pierre-François Bouchard, discovers the Rosetta Stone. The stone, containing three versions of the same decree, in hieroglyphs, demotic Egyptian, and Ancient Greek, enabled scholars to finally translate hieroglyphs and was a landmark in the development of the field of Egyptology.

July 15, 1974: Greece’s military government engineers a coup in Cyprus in order to install a government favorable to union with Greece. The coup prompted Turkey to intervene to prevent Cyprus from joining Greece, partitioning the island and leaving it in a state of frozen conflict that continues to the present day.

July 15, 2016: Elements within the Turkish military attempt to overthrow the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The coup attempt failed and Erdoğan has spent the past three years using it as justification for purging the Turkish government and military of perceived political enemies as well as a sweeping crackdown on political opponents.

MIDDLE EAST

YEMEN

Representatives of the Yemeni government and the Houthis met Sunday evening on a United Nations-chartered ship in the Red Sea to discuss the implementation of the Hudaydah ceasefire plan they concluded late last year. Talks continued Monday and concluded with what the UN called a “mechanism and new measures to reinforce the ceasefire and de-escalation,” whatever that’s supposed to mean. The two sides are supposed to be meeting regularly to coordinate their mutual withdrawal from Hudaydah, but haven’t spoken since February. Since then the Houthis say, and the UN agrees, that they’ve implemented step one of the redeployment plan by pulling their forces out of Hudaydah’s sea port as well as two smaller ports in Hudaydah province. But the government contends that the Houthis only handed the ports over to allies and have not withdrawn from them in any practical sense.

TURKEY

The moment we’ve all been awaiting arrived on Friday, when Turkey received its first shipment of parts for the Russian-made S-400 air defense system that they’ve purchased and that the US government has been trying to talk them into canceling. Parts were still arriving as of Monday, while US sanctions and a potential redefinition of the US-Turkey relationship loom.

The Turkish government remains convinced that Donald Trump is going to swoop in at the last minute to block sanctions or other US penalties over the purchase. The Turks have good reason to think he might—this is basically what Trump did in December when he suddenly decided to pull US forces out of Syria after a single phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. But so far the signs are pointing toward sanctions. Indeed, under the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), whose provisions kick into place over any arms purchase from (among other countries) Russia, Trump can’t totally prevent the imposition of sanctions without defying Congress. Bloomberg reported Sunday that the administration has already settled on a package of sanctions, though it had no details as to what’s in it. Even if Trump chooses the lightest possible package of penalties it’s still going to sting the Turkish economy and, maybe more importantly, Turkish national pride.

Erdoğan and Trump in happier times

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

While we were away, it became apparent that the UAE is effectively pulling out of Yemen, which is something they’ve hinted at doing for some time now but have apparently decided to speed up over the past week or two. Why? Because they’re tired of pouring money on a war they don’t think can be won. It is true, as the Emiratis have been saying, that they’ve trained tens of thousands of Yemeni forces (many of them southern separatists, but uhhhhh let’s ignore that for now) to pick up the slack, and they’re not leaving Yemen completely, but there’s no mistaking the message this withdrawal is sending. To some degree it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy—the Emirati withdrawal leaves the ground war in the hands of the Saudi army, and let’s just say they Saudis are a lot better at accidentally bombing school buses against an enemy with no air or air defense capability than they are at ground warfare.

If the Emirati withdrawal forces a resolution in Yemen that would be an extremely positive development on humanitarian grounds. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Either way, this development—which has reportedly angered the Saudis—should have some interesting regional repercussions. Saudi and Emirati aims in Yemen never coincided entirely—the Emiratis don’t really care about the sanctity of the southern Saudi border, for example—and having maybe secured Hudaydah (see above) and planted the seeds for southern secession (shhhh), the Emiratis really haven’t done too badly for themselves. Given that the war is at best a stalemate and the rest of the world is increasingly appalled by its effects, this isn’t a bad time for the UAE to slink away.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Houthis claim they’ve carried out a drone strike on the King Khaled Air Base in Saudi Arabia’s Asir province. So far there’s been no confirmation of that claim.

IRAN

The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed last week that Iran has begun enriching uranium beyond the 3.67 percent limit stipulated under the 2015 nuclear deal. So far they’re only going as high as 4.5 percent, which is really not much of an increase, but they’ve threatened to go back to enriching up to 20 percent, which is about halfway to weapons grade (“weapons grade” is 90-95 percent enriched, but it gets faster and easier to enrich as you go along). This development has sent European leaders deeper in to the tizzy they’ve been in since Donald Trump pulled the US out of the nuclear deal and thereby irretrievably wrecked the whole thing. They don’t want Iran to breach the terms of the nuclear deal, but have to contend with the fact that Iran is unquestionably in the right here in that it’s only decided to breach the deal after the US unambiguously scrapped it altogether.

EU foreign ministers met in Brussels on Monday to discuss ways to salvage the unsalvageable accord. Faced with two choices—reimpose their own sanctions against Iran over a minor violation of a deal that no longer exists in practice, or defy the United States and resume trading with Iran—the Europeans, in true European style, opted to do nothing (apart from dispatching French President Hermes to do some shuttle diplomacy between Washington, Moscow, and Tehran). The Iranians have been saying they’re ready to reopen talks with Europe and the US provided that the US suspends its sanctions. The Trump administration won’t do that and the Europeans won’t challenge Trump. For domestic political reasons, it’s unlikely that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani could accept anything less than full suspension of the sanctions in return for coming back to the table. This is why the deal is most likely unsalvageable.

The Europeans were promptly called Nazi appeasers by always calm Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. If it were me and I knew I was going to be called a Nazi sympathizer anyway, I’d like to think I’d do the right thing and take strong action to salvage the nuclear deal as opposed to some rhetorical half measure that accomplishes nothing. But that’s just me.

ASIA

ARMENIA

Armenia’s got itself a brand-new far-right group called Adekvad, which seems at first glance to be pretty similar to far-right groups that have sprung up across Europe and even in neighboring Georgia. It hates the European Union, treats George Soros as the devil, you know the drill. However, some officials within the Armenian government have suggested that the group is more a rebranding of the country’s former ruling Republican Party than an independent extremist group:

In his speech about the group, [Armenian Prime Minister Nikol] Pashinyan suggested members were secret shock troops of the former government. “After one year of attempts and activities these forces finally understood that they are irreversibly marginalized, and lately faced with the prospect of not receiving any political support, certain circles decided to carry out promotion of political legitimization of violence in Armenia,” the prime minister said. “In this context an organized campaign is being carried out, the main message being that they are preparing to solve political issues through violence.”

Although a connection to the former authorities has not been openly established, it is widely believed in pro-government circles. Others allege ties to Russia, as well. 

“Even if there is no personal or financial connection to the previous regime, these guys’ messages have been completely in line with what Republicans have been saying and doing since at least 2017, when I first noticed their activity on social media,” Mikayel Zolyan, a former political analyst and now member of parliament in Pashinyan’s “My Step” alliance, told Eurasianet. (The Republican Party was the ruling party until Pashinyan unseated it last year.) “And now what they say or do seems coordinated with other former regime figures and media.”

AFGHANISTAN

A roadside bomb in Kandahar province killed at least 11 people on pilgrimage to a Sufi shrine on Monday while injuring dozens more, mostly women and children. The Taliban was almost certainly responsible, given their activity in Kandahar. Elsewhere, three Taliban fighters and 11 others were killed in a bombing in a mosque in Logar province that may have been the Taliban or ISIS (it’s unclear whether the Taliban fighters attacked the mosque or were attending it). And a landmine killed two children in Balkh province.

Speaking of ISIS, it’s apparently found a new revenue generator in illicitly clear-cutting Afghan forests:

Small numbers of fighters for the Islamic State of Khorasan Province, the Afghan branch of the militant group, have been in Kunar since 2015. But the group’s new stronghold is in Kunar’s deep forests, inheriting a booming wood industry previously controlled by the Taliban that is now generating a growing income for Islamic State militants.

[Police officer Matiullah] Safi’s government outpost in Chawkay district is along one of the front lines for the war on the Islamic State. But it’s also a key entry point for smugglers bringing wood from the forests to other parts of Afghanistan or neighboring Pakistan, using mules maneuvering through mountainous terrain or hiding the logs in secret compartments of trucks that cross the official border.

The provincial government banned the sale of wood in 2016, fearing increasing deforestation and desertification, as an average of 10 hectares of forest are being cut down annually, according to Enamullah Safi, the director of the Kunar Agricultural Directorate.

“After terrorism, wood smuggling is the second biggest problem here,” explained Kunar’s deputy police chief, Col. Mohammed Yousuf.

Apart from funding groups like ISIS and the Taliban, wood smuggling is deforesting Afghanistan and thereby doing serious environmental damage. It’s not just insurgent groups participating, either—many of the wood smugglers are people who simply can’t find another way to support themselves.

PAKISTAN

The State Department added the Baloch Liberation Army to its list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations earlier this month. There’s probably no need to parse this move for a deeper meaning—the BLA fits the definition of an FTO under US law. But it’s possible that the decision signals a further thaw in the US-Pakistan relationship, one that might involve Pakistan helping to herd the Taliban into a peace deal in Afghanistan.

CHINA

In the second quarter of 2019 the Chinese economy grew at an annual rate of 6.2 percent, which is the slowest growth rate it’s experienced in decades. Naturally Donald Trump is taking credit for imposing the tariffs that have brought the Chinese economy to ruin, but in fact most of the slowdown is part of a deliberate plan to shift the Chinese economy away from dependence on exports and toward a greater reliance on domestic consumption. The Chinese economy has shown signs of struggle recently but this isn’t really one of them.

Tens of thousands of people protested in Hong Kong again on Sunday, though this time they concentrated in the suburban town of Sha Tin rather than in the city. They remain angry over the Hong Kong government’s pursuit of an extradition bill that could have fundamentally changed the relationship between the autonomous region and Beijing, and over its refusal to formally withdraw that bill. The demonstrators clashed with police, causing property damage and injuries and leading Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam to characterize the protesters as “rioters.” Lam has repeatedly said the extradition bill is “dead,” which makes it odd that she hasn’t just withdrawn it from the legislative process as the protesters are demanding. And she hasn’t really offered an explanation for not withdrawing it that makes any sense. Almost like she’s just blowing smoke or something.

TAIWAN

The Chinese government plans to sanction US companies that sell military equipment to Taiwan. US defense contractors are barred by US law from doing business with China anyway, but companies that have civilian divisions and sell those products in China could be vulnerable. Undoubtedly Trump will add this to his list of Chinese grievances and this move could thereby deepen the ongoing US-China trade war.

AFRICA

SUDAN

On July 4, Sudan’s ruling military junta and civilian opposition leaders announced that they’d made a huge breakthrough in talks over a transitional government and had reached agreement on a joint administration to govern the country for the next three years. The agreement, mediated by Ethiopia and the African Union, calls for executive power to rotate between the military and civilian sides. They’ll form an 11 member sovereign council with five members appointed by the civilian groups and five by the military, with the 11th member chosen by the first 10. The rotating presidency will begin with the military, giving the junta time to come up with a justification for not handing power over to the civilians when the time comes. Er, I mean, isn’t that nice?

LIBYA

At Foreign Policy in Focus, Edward Hunt notes that the Trump administration is developing a penchant for hanging US allies out to dry. He tried, at least, to leave Syrian Kurds at the mercy of the Turkish military, and he’s definitely abandoned the Misratan militias in Libya who did most of the work on the ground during the US campaign to drive ISIS out of the city of Sirte back in 2016:

Now, those very same Libyan forces are trying to defend Libya’s Government of National Accord from an attack by forces led by Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, a longtime asset of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In April, Haftar started a brutal military campaign to seize control of Tripoli as part of his bid to control all of Libya. “I don’t know that there is a political solution that he would accept other than complete domination,” former U.S. official Thomas Hill told Congress.

Regardless, the Trump administration has worked to help Haftar. Shortly after the general began his attack, the U.S. military withdrew its forces from Libya, making it clear that they would not stand in Haftar’s way. Then, in a phone call with Haftar, Trump endorsed the general’s campaign, despite the fact that it posed a direct threat to the Misratan militias that had previously worked with the U.S. military to fight IS.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

The Congolese Health Ministry diagnosed its first case of ebola in the city of Goma in the eastern DRC on Sunday, potentially kicking the ebola outbreak in that part of the country up into a new and very unwelcome level. Goma is not only a very large urban area of some two million people, it’s a regional hub through which many millions more people pass. If the ebola outbreak really takes root there it could begin to expand dramatically. At this point there doesn’t seem to be much reason to think the disease will spread but the possibility can’t be ruled out either.

EUROPE

CYPRUS

If the whole S-400 fiasco (see above) weren’t bad enough, Turkey’s relationship with the West is about to take a major hit after the European Union decided on Monday to suspend some diplomatic contacts and European financial assistance to Ankara over Turkey’s decision to drill for natural gas in Cyprus’s territorial waters. The suspension of the diplomatic contacts, primarily over an aviation deal that would have boosted Istanbul airport’s role as a European hub, could prove particularly painful. Turkey insists that, basically, Cyprus’s territorial waters don’t really belong to Cyprus, since they cover Turkey’s “continental shelf.” That’s not really the way this works, but Ankara also argues that it has the right to stop Cyprus from exploiting its offshore resources absent a political settlement on the island that ensures its Turkish community will benefit from said exploitation. Turkey is, coincidentally I’m sure, among the biggest obstacles to reaching such a settlement.

RUSSIA

US and Russian representatives are meeting in Geneva on Wednesday to discuss negotiating a new nuclear arms deal that could potentially include China. This seems like a pipe dream, mostly because China is believed to possess around 290 nuclear weapons and there’s no way it’s going to agree to restrictions when both the US and Russia have many times more than that. China probably still has fewer nukes than France, so Beijing is also going to wonder why it’s being singled out for inclusion but France is being left alone. Perhaps China would be willing to talk if both Moscow and Washington were prepared to reduce their own nuclear stockpiles to around 300 or so warheads apiece, but that’s never going to happen.

GERMANY

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has quietly become the favorite to become the next president of the European Commission this week, after European leaders failed to agree on any of the candidates put forward by the major European parliamentary blocs. She’s even quit her defense minister gig in preparation for the new job. However, it’s unclear whether she’ll get enough support in parliament. The “smoke-filled backroom” nature of her sudden candidacy hasn’t exactly endeared her to MEPs, and parties on the center-left and left are particularly displeased. This raises the fascinating possibility that von der Leyen is going to have to appeal to the anti-EU far-right for votes, meaning she’ll have to rely on the support of parties that don’t even really think the European Commission should exist and certainly don’t think it should have much power to do anything.

GREECE

Greece’s conservative New Democracy party won the country’s July 7 parliamentary election with just under 40 percent of the vote, well ahead of now-former ruling party Syriza at around 31.5 percent. This outcome was in line with pre-election polling and reflects voters desire to punish Syriza for years of painful, forced economic austerity by returning to power the folks who happily did austerity without being forced and left the Greek economy in the debt crisis that allowed European lenders to impose more austerity on Syriza. Yes, I know that doesn’t make sense, but oh well. It’s possible that the vote signaled the decline of populism as a force in Greek politics, what with left populist Syriza losing power and right populist Golden Dawn falling out of parliament completely. But I have to say that argument would carry more water if New Democracy hadn’t staged its comeback in part by adopting so much of Golden Dawn’s far-right platform.

ITALY

Italian police have recovered a large cache of guns and ammunition along with one air-to-air missile in raids on neo-Nazi groups active in northern Italy. I’m, uh, sure this is fine, perfectly normal really. What right-wing extremist group doesn’t like to stockpile air-to-air weaponry in hopes of one day developing its own air force? The raids apparently targeted far-right groups that have been supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. The missile is apparently French and used by the Qatari army, and I have no idea what to make about any of that.

FRANCE

Anthropologist and dual French-Iranian national Fariba Adelkhah has reportedly been arrested in Iran and denied access to French consular officials. It’s unclear why she’s being held, but Iranian authorities routinely arrest dual nationals and sometimes other Westerners in the country on espionage charges. French authorities are demanding clarification on her status. This is probably not the best time for Iranian authorities to antagonize a European government, while Europeans are still trying to salvage what’s left of the 2015 nuclear deal, but then the authorities who make these arrests aren’t subject to the elected officials handling those diplomatic issues.

SPAIN

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez said on Monday that his Socialist Party’s efforts to negotiate a support agreement with the leftist Podemos Party have failed. Sánchez is now calling on the right-wing Ciudadanos Party and People’s Party to abstain from a confidence vote next week to allow him to form a minority government. If they don’t, and there’s no reason to expect they will, Spain is likely headed to a snap election.

UNITED KINGDOM

One of the major incidents that took place while we were apart involved the British seizure, at Washington’s behest, of an Iranian tanker in Gibraltar that was allegedly delivering oil to Syria. Naturally the Iranians didn’t take this very well, and neither did Spanish officials who contend that Gibraltar is their property and shouldn’t be used to carry out British naval operations. Tehran insists that the vessel wasn’t heading to Syria at all, though it hasn’t revealed where the ship actually was heading. The UK government has offered to return the ship and its oil to the Iranians if they can guarantee that it’s not going to Syria. So far the Iranians don’t seem to have taken them up on the offer. They did allegedly send some fast boats out to buzz a British tanker and accompanying naval vessel in the Persian Gulf on Wednesday, so that’s exciting. The Iranians also deny that report.

Also while we were out, the UK ambassador to the US, Sir Kim Darroch, resigned after leaked cables showed him speaking critically of Donald Trump over the latter’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Darroch argued that Trump withdrew from the deal basically to spite his predecessor, Barack Obama, and had no strategy for what to do after withdrawing. I know, where’s the lie, but still his position in Washington became untenable once those cables were released.

AMERICAS

ARGENTINA

The first set of official polls ahead of Argentina’s October presidential election show nobody winning in the first round. Incumbent Mauricio Macri and challenger Alberto Fernández are polling relatively close and neither is getting over the 45 percent figure needed to avoid a runoff. The polls appear to be split as to which ticket would win a head-to-head runoff.

GUATEMALA

The Trump administration’s plans to cut a deal whereby it would declare Guatemala a “safe third country,” so that it could send asylum seekers there while their cases go through the US legal system, have fallen through:

On Sunday afternoon, the Guatemalan government issued a statement cancelling a highly anticipated meeting, scheduled for Monday, in Washington, between Jimmy Morales, the President of Guatemala, and Donald Trump. The subject of the meeting was a deal between the two countries that would allow the U.S. government to begin sending asylum seekers to Guatemala under the terms of a so-called safe-third-country agreement. The idea was to outsource part of the American asylum system to Guatemala, despite the fact that many of the Central-American asylum seekers arriving at the U.S. border are Guatemalans fleeing poverty, hunger, and violence in their home country. “Opposition to the deal was widespread in Guatemala,” Lucrecia Hernández Mack, a newly elected member of the Guatemalan congress, told me. “Morales was acting alone.” Over the weekend, the country’s Constitutional Court was considering three separate petitions filed in an attempt to block the deal; on Sunday night, a few hours after Morales cancelled his plans for Washington, citing the pending legal case, the judges issued their ruling: Morales was forbidden from negotiating the deal on his own, without consulting the Guatemalan congress. According to a member of the Trump Administration, “if the injunctions didn’t happen in Guatemala, then the deal would have been signed on Monday.”

Actually, the deal under discussion apparently went even further than a “safe third country” agreement. Those agreements allow the US to send migrants back to a designated country that they passed through on the way to the US. This deal would have just let the Trump administration dump migrants in Guatemala regardless of whether or not they’d passed through the country. But clearly there’s no support anywhere in the Guatemalan political establishment for this kind of arrangement, other than with Morales himself.

UNITED STATES

The Pentagon is on its third defense secretary this year, as Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer took over as acting secretary on Monday during the confirmation process for Mark Esper. Recall that Esper, the former secretary of the army, took over as acting defense secretary when previous acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan stepped down and withdrew his own nomination for the permanent gig last month due to personal issues.

Finally, the Trump administration has instituted new rules that will block pretty much all asylum seekers at the US-Mexico border from applying for asylum in the US:

The Trump administration has announced new immigration rules ending asylum protections for almost all migrants who arrive at the US-Mexico border, in violation of both US and international law.

According to the new rules, any asylum seekers who pass through another country before arriving at the southern border – including children traveling on their own – will not be eligible for asylum if they failed to apply first in their country of transit. They would only be eligible for US asylum if their application was turned down elsewhere.

The change would affect the vast majority of migrants arriving through Mexico. Most of those currently come from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, but an increasing number are from Haiti, Cuba and countries further afield in Africa and Asia.

There’s nothing in US or international law that allows the administration to do this, but there’s also nobody in the US who’s prepared to do anything to stop Trump or even mildly inconvenience him (hi, House Democrats!), and veteran FX readers should know by now that international law is essentially meaningless.