World update: June 11 2019

Stories from China, Sudan, and more

First off, a programming note. We’re going to try a somewhat different model for Foreign Exchanges for the rest of this week. For one thing, you may have noticed that today’s update is unlocked to free mailing list members and the public. Thursday’s will be unlocked as well. I’ll explain this in more detail in a later post for subscribers, but the idea is to make more of these updates available to non-subscribers in the hopes that they become exposed to FX and decide to subscribe. You can help this effort by sharing these public updates widely on social media and forwarding them to people you think might appreciate them.

The second change is related to the first. I’ve been thinking of ways to reduce our email frequency while still bringing everybody the same content. So we’re going to try a new method whereby I just post our “today in history” pieces to the site (without sending them out), and then I link to multiple recent “today in history” posts in these public world updates under a new section that for now I’m calling “These Days in History.” That should substantially reduce the number of emails you’re getting from FX but won’t mean any change in content overall. You can also see every post as it goes up by following FX on Twitter.

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June 11: The Battle of Fakhkh (786)



Syrian media reported early Wednesday that the country’s air defenses have “thwarted” an Israeli missile strike against an area close to the Golan. When the Syrian media reports something like this it usually means the air defenses have shot down a couple of missiles out of a larger strike, but we’ll have to wait for the damage reports.

Turkish forces reportedly killed at least 10 Kurdish YPG fighters near Tel Rifaat on Sunday, after some sort of YPG attack that killed one Turkish soldier. Details are unclear but bear this incident in mind the next time somebody in the Trump administration says they’re going to deconflict the Turkey-YPG relationship in northeastern Syria.


The Pentagon on Monday took the next step toward excising Turkey from the F-35 program by suspending current training programs for Turkish pilots. It had already canceled future training programs but there were some Turkish personnel already being trained. Now they aren’t. Back in Ankara the Turks continue to act as though the US is bluffing and/or that Donald Trump will ultimately step in to prevent any kind of penalty attached to Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defense system, whether it be blocking their F-35 purchase or sanctions, or both. This is because, well, Donald Trump apparently has given Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reason to believe that he’s not quite as upset about the S-400 deal as his Pentagon is. The thing is, Trump is highly unlikely to buck The Generals on something like this, so he probably doesn’t mean whatever he’s been telling Erdoğan.


One Palestinian police officer was wounded in an overnight gun battle with Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Nablus. Israeli and Palestinian Authority security forces rarely get into confrontations like this, and the reason for Tuesday’s clash is in dispute—the Israelis say they mistakenly identified the Palestinian officers as potential militants, while the Palestinians are convinced that the Israelis knew who they were and attacked them anyway.


The Houthis say they fired off a cruise missile at Saudi Arabia’s Abha Airport on Wednesday morning. So far the Saudis haven’t confirmed that and there are no reports of damage or the like.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (probably) bought the Leonardo da Vinci (probably) painting Salvator Mundi for around $450 million in 2017, (probably) on behalf of the Abu Dhabi Louvre (which isn’t actually connected to the real Louvre but licensed the name). But the museum never received the painting, and there’s been some speculation that MBS bought a fake and tossed the painting down a hole somewhere to minimize his embarrassment. Now there’s a report that the prince has actually decided to display the painting on his “superyacht,” the Serene. He bought that vessel back in 2015 for around 500 million euros. I don’t really have a point here except to say how wonderful it is that Prince Mohammad has cracked down on elite corruption in Saudi Arabia.

He knows what I’m talking about

Speaking of the prince, the Trump administration has reportedly made it known that it wants to see some “tangible progress” in the investigation into the Jamal Khashoggi murder before the October 2 anniversary of that murder. Reuters says that an anonymous administration official “said the Saudis needed to complete their investigation and take action ahead of the anniversary but did not specify any consequences if they failed to do so.” Go figure.


The Trump administration declared on Tuesday that Iran is now in violation of the 2015 nuclear deal. Yes, the same deal the Trump administration balled up and threw in the trash last year. It really would be impossible to make this stuff up. The Iranians have started installing more advanced centrifuges, though in itself that doesn’t automatically violate the deal and the International Atomic Energy Agency, a slightly more objective party than the Trump folks, has expressed concern about that step but hasn’t said that Iran is violating the agreement.

The Iranian government on Tuesday released Lebanese national and US permanent resident Nizar Zakka. They’d arrested Zakka back in 2015 for spying and sentenced him to 10 years in prison after the typical pro forma legal process. It’s unclear why they decided to release him, though possibly it was to reduce tensions with the US.



Afghan security forces on Monday reportedly freed 34 people (17 of them civilians) being held in a Taliban prison in Baghlan province.


The Pakistani government moved last year to incorporate its Federally Administered Tribal Areas, along the Afghan border, into Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. The reorganization was supposed to end decades of essentially military rule in the FATA, which was still governed under a repressive frontier system established by Britain. So far though, nothing seems to have changed, mostly because of the Pakistani military’s campaign against the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement and its efforts to protect civil rights for Pakistan’s Pashtun minority:

The P.T.M. has for the past year been a thorn in the side of the military, accusing the security forces of extrajudicial killings, of whisking away dissidents to secret jails and of other abuses.

The army, which accuses the movement of being controlled by Afghan and Indian intelligence agencies, has grown increasingly infuriated. And the Pakistani news media, under heavy intimidation from the authorities, has largely stayed quiet about the topic altogether.

Tension boiled over on May 26, when the security forces shot into a crowd of protesters in the North Waziristan tribal area as they traveled to a sit-in, leaving at least 13 dead, members of the movement said. P.T.M. activists and witnesses said the demonstrators were unarmed. The authorities say that demonstrators opened fire first, hurting several officers, though video clips of the demonstration have not shown that.


Indian police say they killed two militants on Tuesday in a gun battle in the Kashmiri town of Zainapora that was subsequently claimed by ISIS.


Two supporters of West Bengal state’s Trinamool party were killed in what appears to have been a politically-motivated bombing on Monday. That brings the total killed in West Bengal in post-election violence to at least 15, as supporters of Trinamool and of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party work out their disagreements.


Thousands of protesters rallied Wednesday morning along the street where many of Hong Kong’s main government offices are located. They’re opposed to an extradition bill that would allow the Hong Kong government to send wanted fugitives back to mainland China for prosecution. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam seems committed to the bill despite the protests, but says her government is trying to beef up its human rights protections. The Hong Kong legislature is scheduled to debate the bill on Wednesday amid a planned general strike.

So it turns out that if Donald Trump really pushes his trade war with China to the limit, Beijing can effectively pull the plug on the US military:

Every advanced weapon in the U.S. arsenal—from Tomahawk missiles to the F-35 fighter jet to Aegis-equipped destroyers and cruisers and everything in between—is absolutely reliant on components made using rare-earth elements, including critical items such as permanent magnets and specialized alloys that are almost exclusively made in China. Perhaps more worrisome is that the long-term U.S. supply of smart bombs and guided munitions that would have to be replenished in a hurry in the event of U.S. conflict in Syria, Iran, or elsewhere are essentially reliant on China’s acquiescence in their continued production.

Chinese threats to cut off U.S. supplies of rare earths, first floated by Beijing in late May, haven’t abated. Over the weekend, Chinese state media suggested that high-end, finished products using rare earths that the U.S. defense industry requires could be included in China’s technology-export restrictions, themselves a response to U.S. pressure on the telecoms giant Huawei. “China is capable of impacting the US supply chain through certain technical controls,” said an editorial in China’s Global Times that pointedly referred to processed rare earths.

“China has effectively altered the way we manage war, and potentially the outcome,” said James Kennedy, the founder of ThREE Consulting, a rare-earths consultancy focused on security implications.

This state of affairs is especially fascinating given that the Pentagon has been preparing to potentially fight a war against China but has no way to arm itself except via Chinese suppliers. Seems like that might be kind of a problem for them.


Donald Trump got another beautiful letter from Kim Jong-un, so he’s got that going for him, and says that he wouldn’t have allowed the CIA to use his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, as an informant, as it apparently did. I don’t really have strong feelings about the CIA and its North Korean assets, but regardless this was an extremely weird thing for a US president to say. Not bad, necessarily, just weird.



There appears to have been a development in Sudan’s political crisis on Tuesday, as the country’s ruling junta and opposition groups have agreed to resume talks on forming a civilian transitional government. The breakthrough comes over a week after the junta began a violent crackdown against the opposition that has killed well over 100 people. Opposition leaders announced that they were suspending their civil disobedience campaign, including their three day old general strike as a result, while the junta has reportedly agreed to release several political prisoners.

Credit for the progress, if that’s what this is, should apparently go to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who flew to Sudan late last week to broker a settlement between the junta and the opposition. Abiy proposed a 15 member council with a rotating presidency to handle executive duties during the transition, comprised of eight civilian and seven military members. Control of an executive council has been the major sticking point between the two sides, but opposition leaders have already responded positively to Abiy’s compromise and Tuesday’s developments may indicate that the junta is softening its position as well.


Ghana’s coastal communities are being hammered by overfishing:

The fisheries sector in Ghana, beset with overfishing and a dramatic depletion of stocks, is facing an imminent crisis. There is widespread illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. As a result, there has been a significant loss of potential income for coastal communities. The country’s fishery sector creates jobs for 20% of the active labor force (2.7 million people), and industrial and artisanal fishing vessels compete for small pelagic stocks. In both sectors, there are severe political obstacles to addressing the crisis.


A group of Boko Haram fighters attacked the Cameroonian island of Darak on Lake Chad early Monday morning, killing at least 26 people (17 soldiers and nine civilians) in the process. At least seven people are still missing, and Cameroonian authorities say their forces captured around 40 of the militants.



Somewhat surprisingly, the considerable public and journalistic outcry over the arrest of Russian journalist Ivan Golunov on (likely trumped up) drug charges has prodded Russian authorities into releasing him. Golunov’s reporting on official corruption is likely what landed him in jail in the first place, and the embarrassment over his arrest could wind up costing a few people their jobs.


His court-ordered suspension over, Moldovan President Igor Dodon on Tuesday revoked his temporary replacement Pavel Filip’s decision over the weekend to schedule an early election. It’s unclear whether Dodon has the authority to take this step, but then it’s unclear whether Moldova’s Constitutional Court had the right to suspend Dodon in the first place. Filip is still claiming to be prime minister despite the coalition deal that Dodon’s Socialists cut with the ACUM party on Saturday that should have made its leader, Maia Sandu, PM. In a naked bit of pandering, Filip’s government announced on Tuesday that it’s moving the Moldovan embassy in Israel to Jerusalem so as to get on Donald Trump’s good side.


The Italian government is now going to fine and potentially seize vessels that enter Italian waters against the orders of Italian authorities. Obviously the targets here are charity migrant rescue ships that pick up people risking their lives to make the trip across the Mediterranean from North Africa. Those ships frequently unload their passengers in Italian ports, which is of course anathema to Italy’s far-right government.


Spain’s Socialist Party has cut a deal with the leftist Podemos party to cooperate in forming a new government following April’s election. This is not a coalition agreement, which Podemos wants but Socialist leader Pedro Sánchez has resisted. But is an agreement that, at the very least, Podemos will support a Socialist minority government. The two parties combined still don’t control a majority of seats in the Spanish parliament, so they have more dealmaking to do.


Theresa May says that the UK will reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050! Theresa May is also going to be out of a job in a couple of weeks! Cool!



President Mauricio Macri has apparently dumped his vice president, Gabriela Michetti, because on Tuesday he announced plans to run alongside Senator Miguel Pichetto in Argentina’s October presidential election. Pichetto is actually a member of the opposition who supported former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner when she was in office, but he’ll now be running against her as she’s the VP candidate for presidential challenger Alberto Fernández. He may broaden Macri’s appeal, which would be helpful to the incumbent since polling has him slightly behind the Fernández-Fernández ticket. Markets, hopeful that Macri’s austerity agenda will continue to immiserate Argentine citizens for the next four years, seemed to approve of his new running mate.


Unsurprisingly, there are growing calls for the resignation of Brazilian Justice Minister Sérgio Moro, after the Intercept reported Monday that he deliberately steered the Operation Car Wash investigation to target former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and prevent his return to office. Moro has denied the charge but the evidence seems pretty compelling, and President Jair Bolsonaro has very conspicuously not come out to personally defend him (Bolsonaro has defended him via a spokesperson). In light of the Intercept’s reporting, Brazil’s Supreme Court now says it plans to review Lula’s appeal of the corruption conviction that put him in prison rather than back in the presidency.


The Trump administration has formally requested Julian Assange’s extradition from the United Kingdom. This was inevitable but still worth noting. The US government wants Assange on espionage charges, though it seems to be drawing a very blurry line between “espionage” and “journalism.”