World update: July 25 2019

Stories from Syria, Tunisia, Brazil, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

July 24, 1910: The Albanian Revolt of 1910 ends with the Ottoman capture of the city of Shkodër. The Albanian defeat only presaged their victory in a second revolt in 1912, which briefly established Albania’s autonomy within the Ottoman Empire until the 1912-1913 First Balkan War secured Albania’s independence altogether.

July 24, 1923: The Treaty of Lausanne formally ends the Turkish War of Independence and establishes the borders of the Republic of Turkey. The treaty superseded the World War I Treaty of Sèvres, which partitioned Anatolia and led the remnants of the Ottoman/Turkish military to resist.

July 25, 1139: Portuguese forces under the future Afonso I defeat the Almoravids at the Battle of Ourique. Details of this battle are sketchy at best, but supposedly at some point afterward Afonso declared Portugal’s independence from the Kingdom of León and thereby gave himself a promotion from Count to King.

July 25, 1799: The Battle of Abukir

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

According to Syrian Civil Defense and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least ten people were killed on Thursday in airstrikes across rebel-held northwestern Syria. It seems as though air and artillery strikes in the area have picked up over the past week or so, perhaps because the Syrian government’s ground offensive in the southern Idlib area has stalled out. The escalation in strikes could be an effort to soften things up for another ground push, perhaps to secure the M4 and M5 highways.

Wednesday’s Israeli missile strike on southern Syria killed at least nine people in Deraa and Quneitra provinces, including six Iranian fighters. The strike targeted facilities believed to be used by Iranian personnel and Iran-backed militias fighting in support of the Syrian government.

Also in southern Syria, conditions at the Rukban displaced persons camp, which lies within a US-protected zone around its military base at Tanf, are extremely dire:

As of July 23, roughly 11,000 internally displaced persons remained at Rukban, which lies in a no-man’s land off the border between Syria and Jordan, according to Etana, a research group based in Amman under the umbrella of former Syrian National Council spokesperson Bassma Kodmani’s Arab Reform Initiative. Etana gathered information from multiple civil and military sources on the ground in and near the camp.

“Most of those that remain in the camp are wanted by the regime, their security situation is dangerous, yet as a result of the hunger and the miserable living conditions, people have two choices: killed by hunger or killed by the regime,” a source inside the camp said, according to a July 23 memo provided to Foreign Policy by Etana.

The deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Syria, Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, said in an interview that Assad has refused to allow the flow of United Nations-led humanitarian aid to the camp since February.

Here’s the thing: while the Syrian government is definitely blocking UN aid from reaching the camp, party best positioned to provide aid to the people living there is the United States, by far. The US wouldn’t even necessarily have to provide the aid itself—it could ask Jordan to provide it and just shepherd it to the camp from the border. But it isn’t. Why? Because the US doesn’t want to create the impression that it’s staying in southern Syria indefinitely, even though it very well may be doing just that.

To be fair, US policy in southern Syria (or anywhere else, for that matter) could change with one shift in the president’s brain prions, so it’s best not to plan too far ahead. But there’s also apparently a very ugly sentiment in the administration that if the US sends aid to Rukban, the refugees there will become dependent on the US for their survival. Which is the kind of thing you say about wild animals, not human beings. You know what would be even worse than the people at Rukban becoming dependent on the US? How about everybody at Rukban dying while the US sits idly by, blaming everybody else for an atrocity that it could have prevented? Because that’s what’s going to happen. The administration also says that it can’t deliver aid to the camp because it can’t “certify” that there’s a need, since USAID workers can’t get access to the camp. This argument is so stupid it’s beneath even a government led by Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar met with senior officers to discuss plans to attack Syrian Kurds east of the Euphrates River. After a visit by US Syria envoy James Jeffrey earlier this week the Turks said they’re “out of patience” with Washington’s failure to design a safe zone in northeastern Syria and implement an agreed-upon “roadmap” for the town of Manbij. They’ve suggested they’re on the verge of taking matters into their own hands, but that could be a bluff.

TURKEY

Turkey is continuing to take delivery of its new Russian-made S-400 air defense system, and Turkish officials now seem to be making a big deal out of the fact that they’ve technically only been suspended—not removed—from the F-35 program as a result. But while Donald Trump may be reluctant to punish Turkey, he’s getting a lot of pressure to do so from an unlikely source: Republicans in Congress. A group of 45 Republican senators met with Trump on Tuesday to urge him to sanction Ankara, and they seem to think the administration is prepared to take some action in that regard.

LEBANON

Lebanese authorities are cracking down on undocumented Syrian refugees:

Lebanese security forces are increasingly carrying out raids at businesses and refugee camps, according to reports, renewing concerns that Syrian refugees are at risk of being unfairly deported and mistreated.

Growing reports of raids over the past few weeks follow a Lebanese government drive against undocumented foreign labour, a move Syrians feared was aimed at earmarking them.

As the Syrian crisis enters its ninth year, there are around 1.5 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring Lebanon - more refugees per capita than any other country in the world - and most are undocumented.

According to the National News Agency in Lebanon and other local media, at least 301 Syrians were deported in May.

Other reports say refugee camps were raided, leading to the detention of Syrians, this month, in February and November last year.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Houthis say they launched a drone attack against Saudi Arabia’s Abha Airport on Thursday. The Saudis say they intercepted the drone without incident.

IRAN

The UK government appears to have changed its plans to secure commercial transit in the Persian Gulf. After pitching other European countries on a joint effort to protect shipping in the region, and after specifically saying that it didn’t have enough ships to simply escort all British vessels in the Gulf, it now says it will provide such escort services. OK then. This could reflect a policy shift under new Prime Minister Boris Johnson, though the ultimate goal still seems to be some kind of coalition arrangement. Interestingly, the UK now seems to be open to collaborating with similar US efforts in the Gulf even though just days ago it was at pains to steer clear of any project attached to the US. Meanwhile, “some Gulf states”—the Guardian doesn’t say which ones—are trying to organize “an international maritime conference” to develop a consensus for some basic maritime rules of the proverbial road. Iran would be invited to attend such a conference if one is held.

ASIA

KYRGYZSTAN

As it turns out, ex-Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev’s self-imposed Russian exile lasted all of one day and included a meeting with Vladimir Putin. Afterward, an apparently emboldened Atambayev flew back to Kyrgyzstan, where he’s under investigation on corruption charges but may now be untouchable after getting Putin’s imprimatur. The Russian president, while expressing support for current Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov, also apparently suggested that maybe the Kyrgyz government should lay off of Atambayev or at least chill out a little. The investigation probably won’t go away entirely—that would be humiliating for Jeenbekov—but let’s just say it might slow down quite a bit.

AFGHANISTAN

Three bombings in Kabul on Thursday killed at least 11 people and wounded 45 more. Two of the bombings—the ones that produced the fatalities—appear to have been coordinated as a double-tap strike and both were later claimed by ISIS. A third bombing that accounted for 17 of the wounded was claimed by the Taliban. Outside the capital, a roadside bomb in Nangarhar province killed at least nine people when it struck a wedding partyAlso on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by phone with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and they agreed to “step up,” whatever that means, efforts to reach a peace deal with the Taliban.

NORTH KOREA

Even though it involved short-range missiles and Donald Trump has already said that they don’t “bother” him, North Korea’s missile test on Thursday still looks like it could damage prospects for further diplomacy. Reuters is reporting that North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho has up and canceled his plans to attend a conference in Bangkok next week where he was supposed to meet with Pompeo. It’s unclear whether Ri canceled of his own accord or as a result of the fallout from the test. The North Koreans have criticized planned US-South Korean military exercises and generally don’t seem to be in much of a mood to talk at the moment.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Leaders of Sudan’s various opposition factions say they’ve reached an internal political agreement that should streamline their efforts to negotiate a transition agreement with the country’s ruling military junta:

TUNISIA

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi is dead, after having been rushed to the hospital on Wednesday for the second time in less than a month. Given his age (a sprightly 92), Essebsi’s death cannot come as much of a surprise, but it does throw Tunisian politics into a bit of chaos. Parliament speaker Mohamed Ennaceur has taken over as interim president, and his job will be to oversee a new presidential election. Tunisia was supposed to hold a presidential election in November, but that will now be moved forward and the first round will take place on September 15.

After helping to shepherd Tunisia through its Arab Spring political transition and becoming the country’s first democratically-elected president in 2014, not to mention leading the country fairly stably through a series of ISIS terrorist attacks as president, Essebsi deserves a fair amount of credit for preventing Tunisia from either backsliding into autocracy or collapsing into civil war. But he’s also going to be remembered for pushing very hard to achieve amnesty for members of the Ben Ali government and thereby shield them from punishment for their crimes, and for overseeing a constitutional crisis during the last year or so of his presidency. He’s a land of contrasts, is what I’m saying.

ALGERIA

The interim Algerian government has established a new panel that’s supposed to “oversee a national dialogue and hold a presidential election.” The goal would be to end the country’s months-long political crisis, but the whole “national dialogue” bit is going to need some fleshing out before it will be possible to gauge its chances of succeeding. Since the commission was established by acting President Abdelkader Bensalah, whose resignation has been a goal of the protesters virtually since he assumed the office following the resignation of Abdelaziz Bouteflika back in April, it’s far from certain that the protesters are going to welcome its creation.

EUROPE

CYPRUS

Foreign Policy looks at Turkey’s increasingly brazen attempt to effectively pilfer Cyprus’s offshore gas reserves:

In the last two months, Turkey dispatched several drilling and exploration ships into the waters around Cyprus, searching for gas discoveries of its own in areas that are claimed by Nicosia. The drillships have been escorted by a growing flotilla of Turkish naval vessels, submarines, drones, and patrol craft. Turkey’s posture prompted a stern rebuke from the Greek Cypriot southern half of the divided island, as well as the European Union, which called Ankara’s actions “illegal” and last week levied symbolic financial penalties on Turkey.

Turkey’s aggressive behavior, which comes as the country is in a worsening showdown with NATO ally the United States over its purchase of Russian weapons, is hardly new. It’s the culmination of more than five years of steadily increasing harassment of companies and ships carrying out energy exploration around Cyprus, which first discovered a sizable natural gas field off its southern coast almost a decade ago and has been trying to make it pay ever since.

That back-and-forth among Turkey, Cyprus, and other countries around the Eastern Mediterranean tended to stay at a low simmer, since the energy projects were plagued with technical challenges and have taken years to develop.

Turkey’s stance relies on a claim that it should control all the resources in its “continental shelf,” a position that doesn’t seem to have any basis in international law for whatever that’s worth.

UKRAINE

I don’t know why everybody’s decided to start seizing ships at sea lately, but it’s starting to get ridiculous. Ukrainian officials on Thursday detained a Russian tanker believed to have been involved in the Russian seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels back in November. The ship is still in Ukrainian custody, but its 10 member crew is returning to Russia in the wake of a threat from Moscow (the Russians say there were 15 crew members on the ship, so that threat may still be active).

SPAIN

As expected, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez lost a second confidence vote on Thursday due to the collapse of his coalition talks with the Podemos party. Sánchez now has two months to keep negotiating with Podemos and smaller parties for support, and if those efforts fail Spain will hold a new election in November that’s likely either to just reinforce the current mess or to bring right-wing parties to power. Or Sánchez could decide there’s no point to talking any more and just call a new election, but Podemos leaders are trying to persuade him not to do that.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

Good news! Jair Bolsonaro’s plan to cause the collapse of human civilization is proceeding apace:

Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon has surged above three football fields a minute, according to the latest government data, pushing the world’s biggest rainforest closer to a tipping point beyond which it cannot recover.

The sharp rise – following year-on-year increases in May and June – confirms fears that president Jair Bolsonaro has given a green light to illegal land invasion, logging and burning.

Clearance so far in July has hit 1,345 sq km, a third higher than the previous monthly record under the current monitoring system by the Deter B satellite system, which started in 2015.

With five days remaining, this is on course to be the first month for several years in which Brazil loses an area of forest bigger than Greater London.

I am an avowed non-interventionist, as regular readers have hopefully figured out by now. But I nonetheless find it fascinating that we’re circling a war with Iran in part because they’ve slightly disrupted the global oil trade, while there’s not even a whisper of any kind of intervention in Brazil even though its government is destroying the Amazon rainforest and potentially kicking our climate catastrophe into overdrive. Bolsonaro is letting all the right people make money, is the thing, so no matter what he does he’s pretty much above reproach.

VENEZUELA

The Trump administration has levied new sanctions on 10 individuals and 13 organizations over allegations they were involved in a corrupt food subsidy program that awarded government contracts to bring badly needed food into the country to entities that took the money but didn’t meaningfully follow through on the imports. Among those sanctioned are three stepsons of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Along these same lines, some elements within the Venezuelan opposition are proposing that the US establish an “oil for food” program for Venezuela, akin to the one that allowed Iraq to sell its oil in exchange for food aid back when Saddam Hussein was still around. The main Venezuelan opposition, led by self-declared president Juan Guaidó, has rejected the idea, arguing that Maduro will abuse such a program. Guaidó still seems to think the US can starve the Venezuelan people into overthrowing Maduro, despite a lot of evidence to the contrary. The Iraqi Oil for Food Program was riddled with corruption, there’s little doubt about that, but at a time when US sanctions killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis by some estimates, the program probably did keep that death toll from going even higher.

UNITED STATES

Finally, Puerto Ricans won’t have Ricardo Rosselló to kick around for much longer:

Puerto Rico’s embattled governor has announced his resignation following almost two weeks of continuous mass protest on the island tied to a leaked text message scandal that saw him gradually abandoned by his own party. Ricardo Rosselló’s resignation – set for 2 August – was announced late on Wednesday.

A crowd of demonstrators outside the governor’s mansion in Old San Juan erupted into cheers and singing after his announcement on Facebook Live just before midnight.

Addressing the protests, Rosselló said, “The demands have been overwhelming and I’ve received them with highest degree of humility.”

Rosselló said he would be replaced by his justice secretary, Wanda Vázquez, a former prosecutor who headed the US territory’s office of women’s affairs. Vázquez is next in line to succeed Rosselló after secretary of state Luis Rivera Marín resigned over the scandal earlier in the month.