World update: July 20-21 2019

Stories from Saudi Arabia, China, Ukraine, and more

Friends, here at Foreign Exchanges I try to bring you a broad overview of news from around the world, sprinkled here and there with my own commentary. If you’re looking to take a deeper dive into some of the most important stories of the day, I highly recommend you try Jonathan Katz’s The Long Version. Jonathan is a veteran journalist whose newsletter offers first-hand reporting combined with first-rate analysis and important historical pieces to put today’s headlines into context. Check it out!

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July 19, 711: The Battle of Guadalete

July 19, 1864: The Third Battle of Nanking ends with a decisive Qing victory and the final eradication of the rebel Taiping Heavenly Kingdom. The battle, which ended after the death of rebel leader Hong Xiuquan and saw the Taiping forces lose perhaps as many as 100,000 men (double that if you include the entire siege of Nanking, which began in March), was the last major battle of the Taiping Rebellion.

July 20, 1402: The Battle of Ankara

July 20, 1917: Serbian and other south Slavic representatives sign the Corfu Declaration in Greece, paving the way to the formation of Yugoslavia. Hey, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

July 20, 1969: The crew of Apollo 11 carries out the first moon landing. Possibly you’ve heard about this before.

July 20, 1974: Turkish forces invade Cyprus in response to the pro-union with Greece coup d’etat that took place on July 15. Though the coup failed, this invasion and a followup in August led to the partition of the island between its Greek and Turkish portions, which is still in place today.

July 21, 1774: The Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca

July 21, 1798: The Battle of the Pyramids

July 21, 1969: Very early in the morning, Neil Armstrong becomes the first human to walk on the moon. Again I feel like I probably don’t need to go into this in much detail.



Somebody on Sunday bombed a train carrying phosphates mined in Homs province, causing the train to derail and catch fire. There’s no word on casualties at this point. No group has claimed responsibility but those phosphate mines used to be held by ISIS (a Russian company holds a concession for them now) and the attack occurred in a part of the country where ISIS sleeper cells are probably active. Elsewhere, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that at least 18 people were killed in several pro-government airstrikes in Idlib province. Syrian media is reporting that the Syrian army turned back an attack by rebels affiliated with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in southern Idlib. State TV also reported that Syrian air defenses had responded to an attack in Hama province but no details are available about that incident as yet.


Iraqi Kurdish authorities have arrested a man in connection with the killing of a Turkish diplomat in Erbil on Wednesday. Details are sketchy but it would appear that he’s a Kurd whose sister serves in the Turkish parliament as a member of the People’s Democratic Party (HDP).

Iraqi analysts believe that somewhere around 1000 ISIS fighters have crossed into Iraq since the start of the year, while fleeing the collapse of their would-be caliphate in Syria. Many are originally from Iraq and their return has bolstered ISIS’s remnants there, allowing them to step up their attacks against Iraqi targets. There are many remote areas in Iraq where ISIS fighters can hole up, so the best Iraqi authorities can do is try to limit their insurgency—which, paradoxically, can mean not responding heavily to ISIS attacks lest they harm civilians in the process.


Al Jazeera reports on political tensions in Lebanon, where there are mounting concerns that Christian and Shia politicians, chief among them Maronite Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil (the son in law of President Michel Aoun), are trying to undermine the authority of Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri:

Because Lebanon’s sectarian-based political system gives the PM office to Sunnis, any effort to reduce the PM’s authority can be taken as an attack against the country’s entire Sunni community, even though Hariri doesn’t necessarily represent all Lebanese Sunnis from a political perspective. Any internal political dispute can mushroom into a major sectarian conflict because of the way the system operates.


Benjamin Netanyahu became the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history on Saturday, surpassing the record previously held by the country’s first PM, David Ben-Gurion. How nice for everybody. He’s got to win an election in September in order to extend his streak, but given how thoroughly Netanyahu has aligned Israeli politics on the far right, it would be a mistake to bet against him.


Both British Airways and Lufthansa suspended their flights to Cairo on Saturday, citing unspecified “security concerns.” BA said it’s halting those flights for seven days while Lufthansa restored service on Sunday. It appears the suspension has to do with concerns over security at Cairo airport rather than some particular threat, but neither airline is talking.


Saudi authorities may be studying a sweeping change to the kingdom’s restrictive guardianship laws (the laws that require women to get a male guardian’s permission to do things like attend school or travel), perhaps even eliminating them altogether for women over 18. The possibility of reform is being met with an expected mix of optimism, criticism, and skepticism, in particular about Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman’s motives:

Madawi Al-Rasheed, a Saudi anthropologist at the London School of Economics, said the prospect of reforming guardianship laws may be resurfacing now in an attempt to counter negative stories about the country and specifically about the crown prince.

“I think the context of this is the very, very bad publicity that the so-called runaway girls have brought to the kingdom,” she said, speaking of the growing number of Saudi women who rights groups say are fleeing the country.

“Mohammed bin Salman is desperate to improve the world’s view of the country,” she added. “These incidents puncture his narrative about Saudi Arabia being a safe haven for women.”


Iranian media is reporting that attackers killed two Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers in southeastern Iran on Saturday. No specifics have been released about the attack, which presumably involved a Baluch insurgent group, but Baluch groups in Iran tend to be more of the Sunni extremist variety, as opposed to the more secular nationalists who typically operate in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration is thinking about destroying the one part of the 2015 nuclear deal that’s still working as intended:

The Trump administration is weighing a decision to end waivers that allow Iran to operate a civilian nuclear program with international assistance, in a move that would dismantle a key pillar of the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers, according to two current U.S. officials and a former official familiar with the discussions.

The administration has been locked in an internal debate over the decision, and if carried out, the move could cause the unraveling of the international nuclear agreement that has been in jeopardy since President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal last year.

“Could cause” is being generous. The nuclear deal has already mostly unraveled as it is, but these waivers, which for example allow Russia to work on building civilian nuclear power plants and China to work on remodeling Iran’s plutonium-producing Arak reactor without fear of US sanctions, are pretty much the only ways left in which Iran is still accruing any benefit to adhering to the accord. Take them away and, unless the rest of the world is prepared to openly defy US sanctions, it’s difficult to imagine why Iran wouldn’t simply resume a full-scale nuclear program. Which is the point, of course—if Iran scraps the deal, then a future Democratic president can’t return to it.

As far as this week’s big tanker crisis, things seem to have settled into an uneasy calm over the weekend. The UK is angry at the Iranian seizure of one of its ships (apparently defying warnings from a nearby British warship), naturally, but its options for retaliation are limited. Britain could impose its own sanctions against Iran, but what kind of pain can it inflict that the US hasn’t already inflicted? It can complain about Iran violating international law, but so what? It could release the Iranian tanker it seized in Gibraltar earlier this month, but it doesn’t seem inclined to do that. What’s left? Going to war over an oil tanker? On the plus side, the Stena Impero’s crew all are reportedly doing fine.



Afghan airstrikes in Badghis province late Friday reportedly killed at least ten civilians. The strikes were called to assist an army base in the province that has apparently been surrounded by the Taliban.


At least ten people were killed in two Pakistani Taliban attacks in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Sunday. Gunmen killed two police officers at a checkpoint outside the city of Dera Ismail Khan, while a suicide bomber struck a nearby hospital as their bodies were arriving, killing at least eight more people.


Pakistani officials are blaming “unprovoked” Indian fire across the Kashmiri line of control for the death of one Pakistani soldier on Saturday night along with the wounding of four civilians.


Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protest heated up again on Sunday as the movement continues to morph from opposition to a single objectionable piece of legislation to a more general opposition to Beijing’s influence over Hong Kong. Tens of thousands of people (430,000 according to protest leaders, 138,000 according to Hong Kong officials) surrounded the city’s Liaison Office, the national government building, in defiance of Hong Kong police. Several threw eggs at the building and tagged it with graffiti, before police began to respond violently with tear gas and rubber bullets. Later, a mob of people in white shirts reportedly began attacking people arriving home from the demonstration inside a metro station:

The Triad connection is unconfirmed, but what seems clear is that the Hong Kong government and the mainland government have decided to unleash a paramilitary mob against the protesters. That’s probably not great news.


Japan on Sunday held an election for the House of Councillors, the upper house of its parliament. Results are still preliminary but it seems that Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s supporters have won 69 seats, a majority of the 124 seats up for grabs in the 245 seat chamber. That’s not bad, but it means Abe has lost the 2/3 majority he previously held and that he would need to amend the Japanese constitution to his liking. Abe would like to remove constitutional restrictions on Japan’s ability to have a standing army—the country has gotten around those restrictions by creating a “self-defense” force but he would like to restore a Japanese “military” at least for symbolic reasons. Abe doesn’t seem inclined to give up on this goal and will presumably try to lobby individual lawmakers to support his effort.



An overnight drone strike in a suburb south of Tripoli killed at least seven fighters in Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army.” Presumably the drone strike was launched by forces aligned with Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord.


Tensions between Sidama protesters and Ethiopian authorities in the southern Ethiopian city of Hawassa continue to rise, with at least 13 people having been killed over the weekend in a nearby town. That brings this week’s death toll in the region to at least 17. Ethiopian soldiers may have been responding to reports of violence in the town but some witnesses are claiming that they simply entered the town and began firing on civilians there. Sidama protesters are demanding their own autonomous region centered on Hawassa, but they postponed a plan to declare that region on Thursday after the government promised to allow them to hold a referendum on the issue within five months. Still, large numbers of Ethiopian security forces were already in place in the city and some of the Sidama activists have rejected the postponement, so the situation remains volatile.


Conditions in Zimbabwe have apparently been better:

More than 18 months after the military coup that removed Robert Mugabe from power, the new government is struggling to overcome the legacy of the dictator’s 30 years of repressive rule and the consequences of its own failure to undertake meaningful political reform.

Official figures published on Monday showed annual inflation had almost doubled to 175% in June, adding to the pressure on a population already struggling with shortages of basic foodstuffs, fuel and medicine.

The rising prices reminded many of the economic collapse caused by Mugabe’s policies a decade ago, when hyperinflation emptied shelves of basic foodstuffs and led the southern African country to abandon its currency.

Zimbabwe’s problems are being exacerbated by a severe ongoing drought, which has both reduced food production and left hydroelectric dams without enough water to function properly.



An estimated 20,000 or more protesters hit the streets of Moscow on Saturday to protest election authorities’ decision to bar several opposition candidates from running in upcoming local elections. Gadfly opposition figure Alexei Navalny is promising to hold further rallies ahead of the election in September unless officials relent. The barred candidates have all seemingly met the minimum requirements to get on the ballot.


As expected, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s Servant of the People party looks like it did extremely well for itself in Sunday’s snap parliamentary election. However, because of the dual nature of Ukrainian parliamentary elections (some seats chosen proportionally, others in direct election by district), it’s still unclear whether this success is going to translate into a parliamentary majority. Zelenskiy has reportedly reached out to the smallish pro-Europe “Voice” party, led by a Ukrainian rock star (recall that Zelenskiy is a TV star turned president), to discuss forming a coalition. Regardless of the final outcome, the vote will definitely leave Zelenskiy in a stronger position to enact policy than he was previously, when virtually the entire parliament was against him.



Jair Bolsonaro might be a fascist, or at least sympathetic to fascism, but he definitely knows where his bread is buttered too. The Brazilian president told reporters on Sunday that he’s planning to strip workers’ rights and benefits in order to make life a bit easier for the business leaders who helped put him in office. Specifically, Bolsonaro plans to target a fund that helps workers finance things like home purchases and healthcare expenditures, and from which employers are expected to compensate workers when they’re fired without cause. It’s that last bit that Bolsonaro plans to target, arguing that reducing employer requirements on unemployment payments would, through the magic of the marketplace, make them willing to hire more people. It would certainly leave them with more money, so that’s something at least.

Bolsonaro also wants to make it easier for those big businesses to clear cut the Amazon rainforest, and to help facilitate that he’s appointed Marcelo Xavier da Silva to head his indigenous affairs agency. Xavier da Silva is a police official who apparently has strong ties to large agricultural concerns, hates indigenous people, and has been a frequent critic of the agency he’s now going to lead. Cool! Presumably his big farming backers will now be rewarded with sweet chunks of rainforest land that would previously have been preserved in order to protect both the environment and those indigenous peoples.


The Pentagon says that a Venezuelan military aircraft “aggressively shadowed” a US Navy EP-3 Aries II reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace on Friday. The Venezuelans claim that the US aircraft entered Venezuelan airspace and was escorted out by two Venezuelan fighters.


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Mexico City on Sunday and apparently gave the Mexican government a passing grade in its efforts to reduce the level of Central American migration to the US border. Mexico has until Monday to demonstrate that it’s reducing migrant flows in order to avoid either having to accept “safe third country” status, meaning it would be required to house asylum seekers while their cases are being adjudicated by the US legal system, or possibly risk incurring tariffs. The primary Mexican initiative has involved stationing thousands of national guard forces along Mexico’s southern border to bar migrants from entering the country, and this seems to have had a marked effect on the number of migrants hitting the US border. Pompeo’s stamp of approval should mean that the Mexicans have nothing to worry about ahead of Monday’s deadline, but given that Donald Trump still has the final say here, nothing can be taken for granted.


Puerto Rican Governor Ricardo Rosselló, mired in a growing scandal involving leaked text messages and corruption allegations leveled at former members of his cabinet, announced on Sunday that he will not seek reelection next year and is resigning as the leader of his New Progressive party. He is not, at least for now, planning to step down, which means the protests that have been calling for precisely that for several days now are likely to continue. A large demonstration and general strike are supposed to happen on Monday.

Finally, is John Bolton on the outs with Donald Trump? Probably not, but Trump’s apparent eagerness to negotiate with Iran seems to be one of many signals that the two of them are not exactly on the same page:

Almost 16 months into his tenure as national security advisor, Bolton is frequently finding himself on the losing side of policy debates, and that has led the veteran Washington operative to feel frustrated in his job as Trump’s top foreign-policy aide, according to three sources close to the White House who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the administration’s internal dynamics. It is also the latest evidence of Trump’s growing disillusionment.

“On key marquee issues, he’s not winning,” said Mark Groombridge, who worked as an aide to Bolton for more than a decade before breaking with him over his support for Trump.

This year, Bolton reportedly pushed for intervention in Venezuela, suggesting that embattled President Nicolás Maduro was about to depart, but Bolton proved wrong on that score. He also was seen as being a key player pushing for the transfer of U.S. military ships and equipment to the Middle East, a period of tension that culminated in the shootdown of a U.S. drone by Iranian forces. That resulted in Trump’s last-minute decision not to retaliate (the subject of Zarif’s praise for Trump Thursday)—a reversal that reportedly went against the advice of Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

At other key moments, Bolton has simply been nowhere to be seen. When Trump was meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un late last month, Bolton was in Mongolia for meetings with counterparts there. Instead, accompanying the president during his historic visit to the Demilitarized Zone was Fox News host Tucker Carlson—who recently described Bolton as a “bureaucratic tapeworm” and warned Trump that Bolton, who in the past has urged regime change both in North Korea and Iran, was part of the coterie that drove the United States into war with Iraq.