World update: June 15-16 2019

Stories from Iran, China, Russia, and more

More programming stuff: Since nobody seems to be upset about the decision to move from emailing our “this day in history” posts to collecting them all in our more frequent public updates, we’ll continue doing things that way for now. The new format also allows me to add some less important anniversaries that don’t merit their own post, and even expand our scope a little beyond the greater Middle East.

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

June 14, 1821: Badi VII surrenders the Sennar Sultanate to Egyptian forces under the command of Ismail Pasha. Sudan would remain Egyptian until it gained independence in 1956, though to be fair after 1899 it was really governed more as a separate British colony than as part of Egypt.

June 14, 1830: The French army lands at Sidi Fredj, beginning France’s invasion of Ottoman Algeria. Algiers fell on July 7 and France formally annexed the country, though it would take decades for the French to colonize and pacify most of it. Algeria gained its independence in 1962.

June 15, 1389: The Battle of Kosovo

June 16, 632: Yazdegerd III is crowned ruler of the Sasanian Empire. He ruled for 19 years. Normally that kind of longevity would be considered the sign of an effective ruler, but in Yazdegerd’s case: 1) he was eight when he took the throne and was only 27 when he was killed, and 2) he was the last Sasanian Emperor. He and his court fled Ctesiphon after the Persians’ catastrophic defeat to the invading Arabs at Qadisiyyah in 636 and spent the rest of his life alternately running and raising armies to throw against the caliphate’s forces, which kept chasing him. His forces lost again at Jalula in 637 and Nahavand in 642 before Yazdegerd fled to Central Asia. He was killed in Merv (near modern Mary, Turkmenistan) in 651 by a miller who was either trying to rob him or was working for the governor of the region who wanted to present Yazdegerd’s corpse to the caliphal army when it arrived.

Yazdegerd III (shown ahistorically as an adult) being crowned emperor, from a manuscript of the Shahnameh (Wikimedia Commons)

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

This appears to have been a particularly bloody weekend in northwestern Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory for human rights at least 44 people were killed on Saturday alone in dozens of airstrikes and clashes between rebel and pro-government forces—ten civilians, eight rebels, and 26 pro-government fighters. It’s unclear whether the Syrian army was able to make any territorial progress, but what is clear that whatever ceasefire the Russian and Turkish governments thought they had negotiated for the region last week hasn’t taken hold. Indeed, on Sunday a Turkish military outpost in Idlib province reportedly came under artillery fire from the Syrian army in an attack that the Turks are calling deliberate. The Turks menacingly promised to put the Syrians in their “place” before speaking with Bashar al-Assad’s manager (Russia) to file a complaint.

Elsewhere, a Syrian arms depot west of Damascus exploded on Saturday in an incident that looked an awful lot like the result of an Israeli missile strike, but the Syrian government blamed it on wildfires in the area. The Israelis didn’t comment, which doesn’t tell us anything. There have been no reported casualties.

YEMEN

Following up on a story that the Pentagon laundered through CNN’s Barbara Starr on Friday, Central Command says that the Houthis shot down a US Reaper drone earlier this month and that Iranian sailors tried to shoot down another drone on Thursday before allegedly attacking two tankers in the Gulf of Oman with magnetic mines. The US is assuming that the Houthis must have had Iranian help to shoot that drone down, which is to be expected, but the whole thing is being presented as this sinister act by the vile Houthis to attack a poor drone that wasn’t hurting anybody and was just two weeks from retirement (I’m making that last part up). Except most obvious reason for the US to by flying a drone someplace where the Houthis could shoot it down would be to provide targeting information to the Saudis for their airstrikes on Yemen. Even if they aren’t doing that, the Houthis have every reason to believe they are. Which, needless to say, makes those drones a legitimate military target.

Speaking of drones, the Houthis say they launched several more at Saudi Arabia’s Jizan and Abha airports on Saturday, putting both facilities “out of service.” The Saudis say they intercepted one drone heading toward Abha but as far as I know there’s been no word on casualties and no confirmation that either airport was shut down. Both airports may be used by the Saudi military and so parts of those facilities could also be considered fair game in terms of targeting, but it should be noted that the Houthis attacked Abha airport on Tuesday with a cruise missile that reportedly struck its arrivals hall—which is definitely not a legitimate target. As I was writing this, the Houthis announced via their main media outlet that they launched yet another drone strike against the Abha airport on Monday morning. There’s been no word on anything from the Saudi end.

IRAQ

“Militants” fired three mortar shells onto the Balad air base north of Baghdad on Saturday. There were no casualties but as there are US personnel on that base the incident has raised some concerns about Iran-friendly Iraqi paramilitaries taking shots at US forces amid the rising tension in the Persian Gulf.

According to an anonymous Iraqi source the US has extended Iraq another 90 day waiver to keep buying Iranian electricity and gas. That will be the fourth such waiver the US has given Iraq since reimposing sanctions against Iran last year in violation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The reason is simple: Iraq has no other energy suppliers and its domestic energy production is months if not years away from even beginning to reduce its dependence on imports. The Iraqis don’t want to violate US sanctions but given the choice between violating sanctions and a blackout, they’ll violate the sanctions. The US doesn’t want Iraq to violate those sanctions either because it makes the US look weak, so better to keep granting Baghdad these waivers and kick the proverbial can down the road.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday announced plans for Israel’s newest Golan settlement, to be named “Trump Heights” in honor of the US president who recognized Israel’s annexation of the Golan in March. The annexation, the recognition, and this new settlement are all of course illegal under international law, but who’s going to enforce that?

SAUDI ARABIA

In a rare bit of positive news on the Saudi execution front, an 18 year old Saudi man named Murtaja Qureiris, who’s been in government custody since 2014 when he was 13 years old, will not be put to death and might even be released by 2022. Saudi prosecutors had sought the death penalty for Qureiris, who is Shiʿa, for protesting for Shiʿa rights and allegedly participating in violent acts by Shiʿa militants as far back as 2011, when he was ten years old. The case has earned the Saudis criticism from human rights organizations like Amnesty International and from Europe, where the Austrian government in particular has been pushing the Saudis for leniency. So instead they’ve given Qureiris a 12 year sentence, including the four-plus years he’s already been in prison and four years of probation, giving him a bit less than four more years in the big house.

IRAN

According to state media, the Iranian government will on Monday announce another set of steps to reduce its compliance with the 2015 nuclear accord. These may not be brand new items but rather a confirmation or clarification of the steps it took last month, when it announced that it was no longer going to abide by the deal’s limits on its stockpiles of heavy water and low enriched uranium. The Iranians also threatened to begin enriching uranium to 20 percent if the other signatories to the nuclear deal didn’t take steps to protect its commercial activities from US sanctions. Nothing’s really been done to protect those commercial activities, but the clock on that deadline hasn’t run out yet and at any rate it’s possible that the Iranians were bluffing a bit on that threat.

On the Sunday talk show circuit, Mike Pompeo continued to push the Trump administration’s “despite what you see happening, we really don’t want a war with Iran” story. Pompeo said the US will “take all actions” needed to protect key shipping lanes like the Strait of Hormuz and pledged that the US “will continue to take actions that deter Iran from engaging in this kind of behavior.” By “this kind of behavior” he’s referring to Thursday’s tanker incident, which the US has concluded was Iran’s doing despite a dearth of publicly available evidence to support that conclusion apart from one grainy, decontextualized piece of video released by the Pentagon (which has not been convincing enough for the Japanese government, among others). Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman also used the “we don’t want war but” line over the weekend in an interview with the Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper.

But Pompeo is also referring to an array of other US grievances, including one over a May 31 Taliban suicide attack against a US military convoy in Kabul that the Trump administration has now suddenly decided was Iran’s doing. There doesn’t appear to be any evidence behind this claim, or at least not any that the US government feels like sharing. Iran and the Taliban are on cordial terms, mostly because of their shared hostility toward the US and toward ISIS, but there’s never been any suggestion that the Iranians are using the Taliban as proxies. At the heart of Pompeo’s effort to establish that relationship, absent facts, may be the administration’s contention that it can go to war with Iran without getting congressional approval under the 2001 Authorization to Use Military Force. That is an absurd reading of the AUMF, but it becomes slightly less legally dubious if the administration can somehow link Iran and the Taliban, which is clearly covered under the AUMF, together.

At the New Yorker, Robin Wright compares the current tensions in the Persian Gulf region with the “Tanker War” of the mid-1980s:

Tensions in the Gulf are an eerie echo of the tanker war that erupted in the late eighties during the eight-year conflict between Iraq and Iran. The tanker war was launched in 1984, when Iraq attacked Iran’s oil terminal and oil tankers at Kharg Island, in the northern Persian Gulf. Iran responded by striking tankers—initially from Kuwait and later from other nations—that ferried Iraqi oil. In 1987, as the tanker war threatened to disrupt global oil supplies, the Reagan Administration intervened. It re-registered Kuwaiti ships under the American flag, which allowed the U.S. Navy to provide military protection. Operation Earnest Will became the largest U.S. naval convoy operation since the Second World War. It included carrier battle groups from the Navy, Air Force awacs surveillance planes, and U.S. Army Special Operations Forces. At one point, some thirty ships were deployed to escort tankers from the volatile Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

A 2000 year old tower belonging to the Ghaznain Fort in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province collapsed on Tuesday due to a combination of heavy rain and official neglect. The fort has lost 14 of its towers due to conflict and the Afghan government’s inability to preserve the country’s heritage sites.

PAKISTAN

The Pakistani military canned the now former director of its Inter-Services Intelligence agency, Asim Munir, on Sunday. Munir had only served eight months on the job and was replaced by Faiz Hameed, a “former senior ISI figure” according to Reuters. It’s unclear why the change was made. The ISI, and really the entire Pakistani deep state, has faced considerable public criticism over the past couple of years for its involvement in Pakistani politics, its support for extremist groups, and its harsh treatment of Pakistan’s Pashtun minority. But Hameed is known to be a hardliner in most respects so his appointment was likely made more to confront critics than to appease them.

MYANMAR

The United Nations is threatening to end all its work in Myanmar’s internally displaced persons camps except for “life-saving assistance,” due to an ongoing official policy of apartheid directed at the Rohingya. The Myanmar government has been slowly closing IDP camps set up for Rohingya who were displaced by violent Buddhist mobs during the 2012 Rakhine state riots, due mostly to UN objections over the dire conditions under which those displaced Rohingya were being forced to live. But it’s simply replacing the old camps with new ones, in which the Rohingya are still segregated, still denied freedom of movement, and barred from access to basic amenities and economic opportunities. The government has reportedly refused to work with the UN to improve their living conditions.

CHINA

After a solid week of sometimes massive public protests, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam on Saturday announced that she’s shelving a controversial extradition bill for the time being. Critics and activists had argued that the bill would open the door to Hong Kong sending wanted political fugitives back to mainland China for trial, and the past week’s demonstrations not only shut down most of Hong Kong’s government and business community but also occasionally turned violent. Some of Lam’s closest advisers had advocated postponing the legislation’s consideration, and even the Chinese government had started distancing itself from the situation. In a news conference, Lam said her government would “suspend the legislative amendment exercise, restart our communication with all sectors of society, do more explanation work and listen to different views of society” before revisiting the measure at an undetermined later time, while making it pretty clear that she supports the bill but just thinks it was communicated poorly to Hong Kong citizens.

Lam also resisted growing calls for her resignation. That was Saturday, though. On Sunday, upwards of two million protesters came out to demand that the Hong Kong chief executive completely cancel the extradition bill, rather than just suspending it, and then hit the road herself. If that figure is accurate it would represent the largest protest in Hong Kong’s history and around a quarter of its total population. In the face of that outpouring, which suggests that this coming week isn’t going to be any calmer in Hong Kong than the past week was, Lam offered a more apologetic statement on Sunday but did so only through a spokesperson. It’s difficult to see how she can survive this much opposition but only time will tell.

United Nations Counterterrorism Office head Vladimir Voronkov did visit Xinjiang this week against strong objections from human rights activists and several Western governments including the United States. Voronkov’s visit to the region, where the Chinese government has been accused of running reeducation camps for vast numbers of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, comes before the UN’s human rights chief, Michelle Bachelet, has made a trip there. It seemingly puts the UN’s imprimatur on the Chinese government’s claim that the Uyghur are terrorism risks and that its purpose in setting up what it calls “vocational training centers” is purely to protect against that threat.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Omar al-Bashir made his first public appearance since being ousted in a military coup in April, but sadly for him it was only so that he could be arraigned on corruption charges ahead of his forthcoming trial. Bashir’s trial is probably in part an attempt to muffle calls for his extradition to The Hague to face war crimes charges related to the Darfur genocide. If Bashir goes on trial for those actions it will almost certainly implicate some members of the junta that removed him from power, which obviously would not be in their interest.

Speaking of Darfur, the junta’s ruling Transitional Military Council says that it has “suspended” implementation of a decree calling on the UN and African Union to pull their peacekeepers out of that region. The peacekeeping mission, UNAMID, had opposed that decree, since every outpost from which its forces have withdrawn has been subsequently occupied by the Sudanese military and UNAMID’s mandate requires that it only hand those facilities over to civilian authorities.

MALI

A joint French-Malian operation in the Akabar region, in eastern Mali close to the Niger border, reportedly killed at least 20 “militants” on Sunday and was still ongoing. That border region is frequented by ISIS in the Greater Sahara among other groups, but it’s not clear whether they were the target.

NIGERIA

An “armed gang” killed at least 34 people in a rampage across multiple villages in Nigeria’s Zamfara state on Friday night. Northwestern Nigeria is plagued by banditry and there’s no indication that this was anything but more of that.

SOMALIA

Al-Shabab carried out two significant attacks on Saturday. In the first, it used a roadside bomb to kill at least eight police officers in northern Kenya. In the second, it detonated two bombs, the second of which killed at least eight people and wounded another 16.

CAMEROON

Cameroonian separatists carried out a bombing in the southwestern part of the country on Saturday evening that killed at least four police officers and wounded six more. Predominantly English-speaking western Cameroon has been embroiled in a separatist movement for the past couple of years that’s turned increasingly violent on both sides.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

Maybe I’m just being alarmist but this seems like it has the potential to go very sideways very quickly:

The United States is stepping up digital incursions into Russia’s electric power grid in a warning to President Vladimir V. Putin and a demonstration of how the Trump administration is using new authorities to deploy cybertools more aggressively, current and former government officials said.

In interviews over the past three months, the officials described the previously unreported deployment of American computer code inside Russia’s grid and other targets as a classified companion to more publicly discussed action directed at Moscow’s disinformation and hacking units around the 2018 midterm elections.

Advocates of the more aggressive strategy said it was long overdue, after years of public warnings from the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I. that Russia has inserted malware that could sabotage American power plants, oil and gas pipelines, or water supplies in any future conflict with the United States.

But it also carries significant risk of escalating the daily digital Cold War between Washington and Moscow.

So there’s a sort of Mutually-Assured Destruction logic to this, given that the Russians have almost certainly already done this to the US. And again maybe I’m just a luddite but there seems like even more of a chance for something to go wrong here than there was there. It might be a good idea to negotiate some rules to the cyber road, if for no other reason than to establish that primarily civilian targets like power grids ought to be off limits just like other kinds of civilian targets in conflict.

GREECE

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told reporters on Sunday that his government and the government of Cyprus plan to pursue a complaint against Turkey with the European Union, if it’s determined that the Turks have started drilling for offshore natural gas in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone. The Turks have had a ship suspiciously parked just west of Cyprus since last month and claims that Cyprus’ EEZ lies on Turkey’s “continental shelf,” though as far as I know the EEZ claim should take precedence. They’ve also said they’ll take steps to block any Cypriot offshore drilling to protect the prerogatives of Turkish Cypriots, which is both a fair point and an evergreen excuse to meddle. If the EU decides to act, and if it’s shown that the Turks are drilling, it could impose sanctions on Ankara.

AMERICAS

ARGENTINA

Nobody knows why, but Argentina’s power grid apparently collapsed Sunday morning, leaving tens of millions of people across Argentina and parts of Paraguay and Uruguay without electricity. Power had been restored to about 90 percent of Argentina as well as Paraguay and Uruguay by Sunday evening, but investigating what caused the outage will likely take a couple of weeks. There are obviously bigger issues involved but it’s probably worth noting that the outage is unlikely to do wonders for President Mauricio Macri’s reelection campaign.

GUATEMALA

Guatemala held a general election on Sunday, but the results won’t be known until at least Monday. And given the sheer number of candidates involved in its presidential race (19), it’s likely that part of the process will go to a runoff in August. Ex-first lady Sandra Torres has been leading in the polls and seems a good bet to make it into the second round, but right-wingers Alejandro Giammattei, Edmond Mulet, and Roberto Arzú have been duking it out for second place. Polling for a theoretical second round indicates that no matter which of them gets into the runoff they’ll start as the favorite to beat Torres.

The presidential campaign has been defined in part by outgoing incumbent Jimmy Morales and his hostility toward the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which has been investigating him on corruption charges. A previous frontrunner, former attorney general Thelma Aldana, suddenly and I’m sure coincidentally found herself facing corruption charges that knocked her out of the race after she said that she would strengthen CICIG’s mandate. Another leading candidate, Zury Ríos, was disqualified under a law barring the relatives of former coup leaders—such as her father, Efraín Ríos Montt—from standing for the presidency.

UNITED STATES

Finally, for a country whose military emits more greenhouse gases than the entire nations of Portugal and Sweden, it’s perhaps no wonder the United States isn’t terribly keen on discussing the global costs of climate change and who should properly assume them. But here’s a climate change consequence I bet you hadn’t considered and one the US government really hopes to avoid:

As the White House continues to ignore the reality of climate change, a new risk has appeared. In May, Sen. Tom Carper (Del.), the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, wrote to the head of the Government Accountability Office to request “a study on international sites that store or are contaminated by nuclear waste from United States activity.” 

More specifically, Carper asked the GAO to “identify and address any risks these sites face from climate change.” Growing environmental concerns could further complicate the already contentious politics of military sites around the world — and Carper’s letter spotlights the growing clash between the nuclear age and the age of climate change.

What’s the upshot? That clash could end up costing the U.S. government millions of dollars, paid to overseas governments like Denmark as compensation for environmental damages.

The melting Arctic is going to expose toxic Cold War sites and rising sea levels in the Pacific are threatening to release US nuclear waste into the ocean. Nobody’s calculated the costs associated with cleaning these sites up but, as with everything else associated with climate change, they’re only going to get steeper the longer people wait to take action.