World update: June 1-2 2019

Stories from the United Arab Emirates, China, Algeria, and more

Welcome to another weekend update, which are always unlocked to the public! For the full Foreign Exchanges experience:



Israeli airstrikes killed at least ten people in southwestern Syria overnight. The strikes were in response to Syrian rocket fire that apparently came from within the occupied Golan, which Israel claims as its territory. None of that rocket fire struck Israel, according to Israeli officials. Of the ten deaths, three were Syrian soldiers and seven were foreign pro-government fighters. Syrian state media reported late Sunday that the country’s air defenses had “intercepted” an Israeli missile attack on the T-4 airbase in Homs province, which is used by Iranian forces. Generally when state media says an attack like this has been “intercepted” it means they’ve shot down a couple of missiles but that more got through to the target. But we’ll no doubt hear more about that part later.

Elsewhere, two separate bombings in Raqqa on Saturday killed at least ten people in total. ISIS was presumably responsible but hasn’t claimed either attack so far. And at least 14 people have been killed by a car bombing outside a mosque in the city of Azaz late Sunday. Azaz is controlled by Turkish proxy rebels. ISIS is the most likely target. Syrian Kurds have conducted attacks in Turkish-held parts of northern Syria as well, but Azaz was previously under ISIS control back in 2013-2014, and the group has carried out attacks there since then.


The Houthis say they attacked a pro-government military parade in the city of Aden using drones on Monday morning. There’s no word of an attack but the Saudis are saying that they shot down a drone west of Aden.


The governments of Iraq and Iran are reportedly collaborating on a new water project:

Hope of restoring a clean water lifeline to Basra province is on the rise again with plans by the Iraqi and Iranian governments to revive the Shatt al-Arab as a source of drinking water and improve its functioning as a trade route.

Representatives from Iraq and Iran met May 19 in Khorramshahr, Iran, situated on the waterway, to discuss a clean up of the river on the basis of the Algiers Agreement (1975), establishing joint control and designating the Taluk line, marking the deepest part of the river, the countries' riparian border. Iraqi former President Saddam Hussein abrogated the treaty in 1980 and cited disagreement over control of the river as one of the reasons for invading Iran that year in what evolved into a devastating eight-year war (1980-88). Prior to the agreement, Iraq claimed control over the entire river.

The Shatt al-Arab’s water has been rendered undrinkable and unusable for irrigation because of waste dumping upstream in Iran, and it’s become so shallow from silt buildip that it’s difficult for large vessels to sail on the Iraqi side of the river. On top of its practical benefits, this joint cleanup effort indicates yet again that Iraq isn’t doing very much to divest itself of Iran in line with US demands.


Hundreds of Israelis entered the al-Aqsa compound over the weekend under the protection of Israeli security forces, kicking off protests on Sunday in which several Palestinians were arrested and/or wounded. The Israelis were commemorating Jerusalem Day, the day during the 1967 Six Day War when Israeli forces seized East Jerusalem, but given that these are the final days of Ramadan their actions generated more Palestinian pushback than usual. The Palestinians claim that Israeli officials had previously promised not to allow these sorts of incidents coinciding with the end of the Islamic holy month.


Sudan’s ruling junta on Saturday recalled its ambassador to Qatar for consultations, though it insisted he would return to Doha shortly. This is the second move the junta has made against Qatar in recent days, following its decision earlier in the week to shut down Al Jazeera’s office in Khartoum. It’s not clear why tensions between Sudan and Qatar are on the rise all of a sudden, but the likely explanation is that the junta, having been promised billions of dollars by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, is taking their side in the ongoing Persian Gulf political crisis.


Speaking of the UAE, the New York Times has a profile on Abu Dhabi Crown Prince and de facto UAE leader Mohammed bin Zayed, arguably the most powerful ruler in the Middle East. The Emirati leader wields considerable influence over Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, who gets more press but is definitely the mentee in his relationship with MBZ. He may also be, as the NYT notes, the “richest man in the world” considering that he controls the UAE’s $1.3 trillion sovereign wealth fund. And his already substantial sway in Washington has grown under the Trump administration even as he’s given to acting against US interests:

For decades, the prince has been a key American ally, following Washington’s lead, but now he is going his own way. His special forces are active in Yemen, Libya, Somalia and Egypt’s North Sinai. He has worked to thwart democratic transitions in the Middle East, helped install a reliable autocrat in Egypt and boosted a protégé to power in Saudi Arabia.

At times, the prince has contradicted American policy and destabilized neighbors. Rights groups have criticized him for jailing dissidents at home, for his role in creating a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, and for backing the Saudi prince whose agents killed the dissident writer Jamal Khashoggi.

Yet under the Trump administration, his influence in Washington appears greater than ever. He has a rapport with President Trump, who has frequently adopted the prince’s views on Qatar, Libya and Saudi Arabia, even over the advice of cabinet officials or senior national security staff.

Two pals (Wikimedia Commons)


According to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Tehran would be willing to talk with the United States provided Washington starts showing some “respect.” He didn’t specify but presumably that means rejoining the nuclear deal and dropping sanctions, at a minimum. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo responded to Rouhani’s comments by saying that the US is prepared to sit down with Iran “with no pre-conditions,” and then proceeded to add the pre-condition that Iran starts behaving like a “normal nation.” This is a frequent demand of the anti-Iran crowd in DC, which of course never actually explains how a “normal nation” is supposed to act but presumably intends it to mean that Iran will start toeing the US line. Which, again, seems like a substantial pre-condition. The Iranians dismissed Pompeo’s offer as “word-play.”



Four bombings hit Kabul on Sunday, killing at least two people and wounding 27 more. The first three were all part of one attack, claimed by ISIS, that began with the bombing of a bus in the western part of the city and included two follow-on bombings meant to target responders. The bus bombing caused at least one of the two deaths (it’s unclear which bombing caused the second). The fourth bomb hit a car in southwestern Kabul later in the day and hasn’t been claimed by anybody yet.


One Pakistani soldier was killed on Saturday when his vehicle was bombed and then attacked by gunmen in the North Waziristan region along the Afghan border. No group has claimed responsibility but in that area it’s likely to have been a Pakistani Taliban group.


Anecdotal reports suggest that Chinese authorities are going to some lengths to prevent Uyghurs from fasting for Ramadan:

Widespread intimidation - from inside mosques to family homes - mean residents don't dare utter the traditional Islamic greeting, “as-salaam alaikum”, while fasting is also banned, with restaurants forced to stay open.

At schools and local authority offices, “the Chinese government provides water, food – lunch – to force you to drink and eat,” said Dolkun Isa, president of the World Uyghur Congress, an advocacy group.

Local officials are increasing checks to people’s homes, too, to make sure they aren’t secretly observing the practice, according to a government notice posted online.

They’ll even “bring gifts to Uighur families – pork,” Mr Isa told The Telegraph. Although Muslims don’t eat the meat, “you cannot refuse it; you have to accept it, and they are monitoring them and eating together.”

Chinese officials have deflected previous accusations about their Ramadan rules, saying they’ve only restricted Communist Party members, government officials, and students so that their fasting wouldn’t “interfere” with their “public duties.” This seems like a fairly non-denial sort of denial, since those categories have to cover a pretty substantial number of Uyghurs.

Beijing appears to be taking a hard line on reopening trade talks with the United States. It released a white paper on Sunday saying that it “will never give in on major issues of principle.” The Chinese government is forming a list of “unreliable” foreign partners, and while it’s unclear at this point what the full ramifications would be for an entity on that list Chinese authorities have already started investigating FedEx for alleged package delivery irregularities and there’s some speculation they could start rejecting rare earth mineral purchases by US tech firms.


Kim Yong-chol, formerly Kim Jong-un’s point man for negotiations with the United States, appeared alongside his boss at an art event on Sunday, according to state media. So if recent reports that Kim Yong-chol was sent off to a reeducation camp after the failure of Kim Jong-un’s Hanoi summit with Donald Trump earlier this year are accurate, it would seem he’s out now. Or maybe the reports weren’t accurate.



Sudanese security forces killed one man on Sunday in the area near where protesters have been engaged in a weeks long sit-in demanding a political transition to a civilian government. That’s the third person they’ve killed in the vicinity of the sit-in since Wednesday, which seems like kind of an ominous trend though Sudanese officials say they’re trying to deal with “criminals” in the area. Then again, gunfire near the sit-in also wounded 11 people on Saturday, though in that case it’s not clear who was responsible. Hundreds of people held a counter-protest in Khartoum to support the junta. The junta’s supporters are primarily Islamists who see military governance as the only way to insure a continuation of Sudan’s sharia-based legal system.


Two car bombs targeted a “Libyan National Army” unit in the city of Derna on Sunday, wounding at least 18 people. Some unfriendly Islamist faction is likely responsible.


Tunisia’s new centrist Tahya Tounes party has chosen Prime Minister Youssef Chahed as its president, which isn’t all that surprising since he’s the one who formed the party when he split from Nidaa Tounes earlier this year. The move makes it pretty clear that Chahed plans to run in November’s presidential election, against whom it’s hard to say at this point. Incumbent Beji Caid Essebsi, who would be Nidaa Tounes’ nominee, has said that he doesn’t want to run for reelection but he hasn’t completely closed the door on it either.


Algeria’s Constitutional Council has officially postponed the country’s presidential election, which had been scheduled for next month. Only two candidates registered for the election and both were deemed ineligible. Heavy protests have continued in Algeria, demanding the resignation of interim President Abdelkader Bensalah (whose interim presidency will ironically be extended now) and the ouster of the country’s entire ruling clique, the “pouvoir.” Given the unstable political environment it’s unsurprising almost nobody has been willing to make themselves a candidate for president, but the election postponement likely increases the possibility of a military intervention to suppress the opposition. Army boss Ahmed Gaid Salah has expressed increasing impatience with the situation and clearly views himself as the new overseer of Algerian politics.



Thousands of opposition supporters demonstrated in Tirana on Sunday to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Edi Rama and his Socialist government. At least eight people, seven of them police officers, were injured. The opposition accuses Rama and his cabinet of corruption and links to organized crime and has been organizing regular protests since February to pressure Rama into stepping down and calling for early elections (Albania isn’t scheduled for another election until 2021). Rama has asked for negotiations over the country’s political crisis, arguing that the protests are hurting Albania’s chances of gaining European Union membership.


Five Finnish political parties reportedly concluded coalition talks on Sunday that will make Social Democratic party leader Antti Rinne the first Finnish prime minister from that party since Paavo Lipponen left office in 2003. The Social Democrats came in first in April’s parliamentary election but with just under 18 percent of the vote. So they needed substantial help to get to a majority, which they got from the Centre Party, the Greens, the Left Alliance, and the Swedish People’s Party of Finland.


The Yellow Vest protests continued on Saturday for the 29th week in a row, but their numbers have dwindled to almost nothing—only about 10,000 people are believed to have turned out nationwide. Some 200 protesters staged a second rally in Paris on Sunday to protest police brutality. Many of them had been maimed in clashes with police during previous Yellow Vest protests, and they called for an end to police use of rubber weapons and explosives as methods of crowd control.


Police discovered a “viable car bomb” in the parking lot of a golf club in east Belfast on Saturday, underneath a car belonging to a police officer. Some “dissident Republicans” are the likely culprit, though police haven’t arrested anybody yet and are apparently undertaking a “cross-border” operation to find the would-be bombers.

Donald Trump is arriving in the UK for a state visit on Monday that will, as it turns out, help send off Theresa May, and he’s already lobbed a couple of grenades into the race to succeed her as prime minister. For one thing, Trump has expressed his hopes that former foreign minister Boris Johnson will win that race, and given the esteem with which Trump is held in the UK that’s not likely to work to Johnson’s benefit. For another, US ambassador Woody Johnson on Sunday suggested that any post-Brexit trade deal between the UK and US is going to have to include everything, including private US companies mucking around in the UK’s National Health Service. Even most Tories don’t want the US healthcare system infecting the NHS, so Woody’s remarks are likely to polarize that PM race. One contender, Health Secretary Matt Hancock, has already said he’ll oppose any attempt to sell the NHS out to the US in trade talks.

Austerity kills, folks:

More than 130,000 deaths in the UK since 2012 could have been prevented if improvements in public health policy had not stalled as a direct result of austerity cuts, according to a hard-hitting analysis to be published this week.

The study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) thinktank finds that, after two decades in which preventable diseases were reduced as a result of spending on better education and prevention, there has been a seven-year “perfect storm” in which state provision has been pared back because of budget cuts, while harmful behaviours among people of all ages have increased.

Had progress been maintained at pre-2013 rates, around 131,000 lives could have been saved, the IPPR concludes. Despite promises made during the NHS’s 70th birthday celebrations last year to prioritise prevention, the UK is now only halfway up a table of OECD countries on its record for tackling preventable diseases.



The Mexican government says it’s looking at ways to stem migrant flows from Central America to the United States in order to avoid having US tariffs levied on its products as Donald Trump has threatened to do. But it is not interested in letting the US declare Mexico a “safe third country,” which would oblige asylum seekers to apply for asylum in Mexico before they get to the US. Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has asked the US to boost developmental aid to Central America in order to eliminate some of the economic pressure forcing migrants to come north, but Trump in his infinite wisdom (by which I mean in the midst of a xenophobic temper tantrum), cut that aid earlier this year.


Finally, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has reportedly asked the White House to stop “politicizing” the US military:

The Pentagon has told the White House to stop politicizing the military amid a furor over a Trump administration order to obscure the Navy ship named for the late Sen. John McCain from view during President Donald Trump’s recent visit to Japan.

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told his chief of staff on Friday to speak with the White House military office “and reaffirm his mandate that the Department of Defense will not be politicized,” Shanahan's spokesman, Army Lt. Col. Joseph Buccino, said. "The chief of staff reported that he did reinforce this message."

Shanahan confirmed details about a Navy email that said the White House military office wanted the USS John McCain kept “out of sight” when Trump was in Japan about a week ago. The internal Navy email came to light last week, triggering a storm of outrage.

This is all BS, of course. The US military is inherently political, as are all militaries. As long as politicians are setting the military budget, and as long as the military keeps demanding a bigger and bigger budget to sustain its wars and help prepare for more, there’s no separating politics from the military.

The Pentagon has had no problem being thoroughly politicized via, say, its participation in Trump’s border panic charade, or John Bolton’s efforts to gin up a war with Iran. If the Pentagon were truly apolitical then its active duty theater commanders wouldn’t be doing speaking engagements at pro-war DC think tanks. I know I’m singling out the political stuff this military has done under Trump, but it’s always been this way. What’s different here is that this particular incident besmirched Saint John McCain, and that’s embarrassing to military leaders so now we’re expected to believe they’re all above the fray and would like to remain so. Pure fiction.