World update: June 22-23 2019

Stories from Israel-Palestine, India, Cuba, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

June 21, 1791: French King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette attempt to flee Paris to meet up with royalist troops in what’s become known as the “Flight to Varennes.” Needless to say they didn’t make it.

June 21, 1826: Amid the Greek War of Independence, Egyptian-Ottoman forces under Ibrahim Pasha, son of Muhammad Ali Pasha, invade the Mani Peninsula in the southern Peloponnese. By August Ibrahim’s army will have retreated, invaded again, and retreated again. It was the first time in this conflict that the Ottomans’ Egyptian forces had been decisively defeated.

June 21, 1942: Axis forces under Erwin Rommel capture the Libyan city of Tobruk. Rommel was promoted to field marshal for his trouble, but the Allies retook the city in November.

June 22, 1593: Local Ottoman forces from their Eyalet of Bosnia are routed by a Habsburg army at the Battle of Sisak. It’s one of the first serious Ottoman defeats in the Balkans and the Ottomans’ desire for revenge contributed to the 1593-1606 Long War against the Habsburgs (there are some historians who consider Sisak part of that war). That war ended indecisively, which was typical for Ottoman-Habsburg conflicts until the late 17th century.

June 22, 1527: A force from the Javanese Demak Sultanate under its commander, Fatahillah, liberates the port of Sunda Kelapa from the Portuguese and renames it “Jayakarta.” I wonder whatever happened to that place.

June 23, 1280: A Castilian-Leónese army is decisively defeated by forces of the Granadan Emirate at the Battle of Moclín. Alfonso X of Castile sent an army to invade the emirate because that’s what you did back then if you were the king of Castile. But the Granadan forces suckered the Castilians in with a feigned retreat and then massacred them, killing more than 2800 including almost all the knights of the venerated Order of Santiago.

June 23, 1757: A British East India Company army defeats a combined Bengali-French army at the Battle of Palashi (Plassey). The aftermath resulted in the removal of Siraj ud-Daulah as the Nawab of Bengal and the annexation of Bengal into the East India Company’s territory.

June 23, 2016: UK voters opt to leave the European Union in the Brexit referendum. Perhaps the less said about this the better.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

The Syrian government says that five of its offshore oil pipelines have been damaged in a “terrorist attack.” It’s offered no indication as to who might have carried out the (alleged) attack and the damage doesn’t seem to have been severe as Syrian officials claimed it would be repaired in a matter of hours.

TURKEY

In a thoroughly shocking outcome, Republican People’s Party (CHP) candidate Ekrem İmamoğlu has won the Istanbul mayoralty for the second time this year. İmamoğlu won the original mayor’s race on March 31, only to have Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) pitch a fit and pressure the country’s Supreme Electoral Council into overturning the result and holding a new vote that took place on Sunday. His margin of victory over AKP candidate Binali Yıldırım, in the meantime, increased from a few thousand votes to roughly 775,000 votes.

New, again, Istanbul Mayor-elect Ekrem İmamoğlu (Wikimedia Commons)

That İmamoğlu won is not surprising—he’s already won once and polling consistently showed that his support was growing ahead of the revote. What is surprising is that AKP either couldn’t or didn’t rig the vote. All the same analysis that followed İmamoğlu’s March election still applies. It’s a major political blow to AKP, which has controlled Istanbul for its entire existence as a party. Losing the Istanbul mayoralty will deprive AKP of lucrative revenue streams as well as an extremely high profile office. The mayor of Istanbul is effectively a national figure in Turkey and the office is frequently a springboard to bigger things. İmamoğlu will now become the main figure among the opposition to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, though he’s already said he’s prepared to work with Erdoğan. On the flip side, this outcome may reduce some international angst about the state of Turkish democracy. That’s assuming, of course, that AKP lets this outcome slide. Erdoğan has already congratulated İmamoğlu on his victory, so that suggests he’s going to admit defeat this time around.

LEBANON

Details of the Kushner Accords have begun to filter out (see below), and Lebanese parliament speaker Nabih Berri made it clear on Sunday that Kushner’s plan to throw $50 billion in investments at the Palestinians and other Arab governments in the region (Lebanon would see $6 billion of that package) will not entice the Lebanese government to permanently accept Palestinian refugees. For Lebanon, or Jordan, or any other Arab state to commit to resettling Palestinian refugees would be to give up the Right of Return, undermining much of the Palestinian negotiating position. For Lebanon in particular to agree to resettle large numbers of mostly Sunni Palestinian refugees would be to potentially destabilize the country’s already precarious, sectarian-based political system.

JORDAN

The Jordanian government, which will also be expected to resettle permanently a large number of Palestinian refugees in exchange for its $7.5 billion in KushnerBucks™, is in an even more precarious situation than its Lebanese counterpart. It’s so heavily dependent on aid from the US and the Gulf states that it almost can’t refuse Kushner’s deal lest it anger its patrons. But going along with Kushner’s plan risks a large scale uprising, involving both Palestinians who are angry at losing their right to return home and Jordanians who are angry about absorbing a group of people many still consider to be outsiders, even though their families have been in Jordan for decades. Amman hasn’t even said whether it will attend the Trump administration’s “Peace to Prosperity” summit in Bahrain on Tuesday, where Kushner’s investment scheme is to be officially unveiled, and that’s because it hasn’t figured out how to balance these very serious competing interests.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

As noted above, the Trump administration has offered a preview of what Kushner and friends will unveil in Bahrain, and as expected it’s basically an offer to buy the Palestinians’ humanity. A package of $50 billion in investments could be theirs if they just agree to give up most of their political rights and acquiesce to permanent apartheid. Half of that package would be invested in the Palestinian territories, including $5 billion for a “transportation corridor” that would connect the West Bank to Gaza. Another $9 billion would to toward development projects in the Sinai that would provide economic opportunities for Gazans. Most of the money, apparently, would come from the Gulf states, Europe, and private investors.

Kushner’s plan is having a positive effect on Palestinian unity, as pretty much every Palestinian organization has already rejected it. That should make it dead on arrival, but the Trump administration’s approach is going to be to let more powerful Arab states strong-arm the Palestinians into agreement. Normally that would be politically impossible for them, but authoritarian governments in the two most powerful Arab states, Egypt and Saudis Arabia, have managed to stifle criticism pretty well so they’re free to act counter to the Palestinian cause. The Israelis and the Trump administration mostly win either way here—either the Palestinians accept a completely lopsided political settlement or they reject it and give the Israelis an excuse to say “see, we tried” before annexing the West Bank.

EGYPT

Militants, presumably ISIS affiliated, attacked a group of construction workers in Arish on Saturday. They killed at least four and wounded another five.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Houthis on Sunday launched another deadly drone strike against Abha airport in Saudi Arabia, killing at least one person and wounding at least 21 more. The Houthis earlier claimed to have undertaken attacks against the airports in both Abha and Jizan but there’s been no subsequent word on any strike in Jizan.

IRAN

The Trump administration continued to push—publicly, at least—for negotiations with Iran over the weekend, with both Donald Trump himself and Mike Pompeo both hit that note in various media availabilities. Trump has been stressing that his main concern is that Iran not obtain a nuclear weapon, and you know he’s really got a point there. Wouldn’t it be great if the Iranians and a group of powerful countries, five or maybe even six of them, could negotiate a deal to place strict limitations and a firm inspections regime on Iran’s nuclear program? This plan, call it a “joint” plan since all these countries would be involved, should be comprehensive, covering all aspects of Iran’s nuclear program, and it should commit all of its signatories to a set of actions whereby Iran would accept these limitations in return for sanctions relief.

Eh, it’s probably a pipe dream.

Trump says he’s going to impose “major” new sanctions against Iran on Monday. That’s better than airstrikes, I guess, but it’s still going to ratchet up tensions. John Bolton says the new measures will ensure that the Iranians don’t “mistake US prudence and discretion for weakness,” whatever that means. It also turns out that when he canceled plans for airstrikes against Iran on Thursday night, Trump ordered a cyber-attack against an intelligence outfit associated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps that collects information on vessels moving through the Strait of Hormuz (the Washington Post later reported that the cyber attack targeted Iranian missile systems in the area). The Iranians, meanwhile, are still saying they’ll further reduce their compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal unless European governments take steps to protect Iranian commerce from US sanctions in the very near future.

Trump gets all the attention nowadays, but journalist Shahir Shahidsaless offers an important reminder that the obstacles to reshaping the US-Iran relationship are not only in Washington:

One of the reasons Khamenei puts forward for rejecting talks with the US aimed at détente is that “the Islamic Republic of Iran has no trust in America.” This vision is flawed on two accounts. First, it is a clear indication of unfamiliarity with international relations, because distrust between states is not uncommon. The competition for superiority in weapons—the so-called the arms race—and in military, intelligence and spying organizations, exists because of mistrust. (As evidenced by numerous cases, even close allies do not trust each other: Israelis spy on Americans, Americans spy on Israelis, Germany helps Americans spy on its neighboring European countries, while its own chancellor’s mobile phone has been tapped by Americans.)

Second, it is nonsensical to set trusting your adversaries as a pre-condition to entering negotiations with them. If distrust were an obstacle to entering talks, no talks would have ever happened between adversaries.

Khamenei and the deep state continually argue that the US-Iran conflict is “fundamental, ideological, existential and cannot be resolved through negotiations.” What is the remedy to end this situation? The answer, Iranian hardliners say, is “resistance.” But one question never addressed by Khamenei is “resistance until what and when?”

Iran has plenty of reasons to be wary of talks with the US, and Trump has given them more, but as Shahidsaless notes no adversaries would ever communicate with one another if everybody followed Khamenei’s principles.

ASIA

GEORGIA

Georgia’s political kerfuffle over a Russian lawmaker’s visit to parliament has gone global, thanks to what seems like an overreaction by the Russian government. Late Friday, Vladimir Putin barred Russian airlines from flying into Georgia and called on Russian travel agencies to stop booking trips to the country. The flight ban goes into effect on July 8 and Russian officials are advising any Russians currently in Georgia to be somewhere else by then. Despite the obvious tensions between Russia and Georgia stemming from their 2008 war over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the Georgian government has tried to patch things up in part to increase tourism. Those efforts to rebuild a relationship with Moscow may cost the ruling Georgian Dream party some of its support in the wake of the parliament incident.

INDIA

India’s sixth largest city is on the verge of completely running out of water:

Four reservoirs, which supply Chennai's water, have almost run dry. And the groundwater levels have dropped drastically over the years.

"Because the level of water in the reservoirs has gone down, and due to less rainfall ... a drinking water problem has arisen in Chennai," said Edappadi K. Palaniswami, chief minister of Tamil Nadu Friday.

Even as the government scrambles to provide a steady water supply to the city, people have accepted that running water will not be available for a long time. Families have started to fill small tanks in their homes and use water sparingly.

"I carry a bottle with me to school from the water we get from the tanker. I feel bad because it feels like stealing that water from my family," said Janani, a 16-year-old student at a Chennai school, who was not comfortable sharing her last name.

Around 600 million people—nearly half of India’s population—are believed to be at risk of “acute water shortage.” As many as 21 Indian cities may be in Chennai’s situation by next year. India is currently facing one of its longest heat waves in memory, with temperatures topping 50 degrees Celsius in parts of the country and a death toll that stands at 36 and counting. Welcome to the future.

CHINA

State media is reporting that the Chinese government will have to spend upwards of $440 billion over the next three years to cleanup low income rural areas and build needed waste handling infrastructure like sewage treatment plants. Rural China has been heavily polluted both due to inadequate facilities and the overuse of pesticides and other agricultural products.

NORTH KOREA

North Korean media reported on Saturday that Kim Jong-un received an “excellent” letter from Donald Trump and that Kim planned to “seriously contemplate the interesting content” contained therein. For all I know the letter was about how Graydon Carter’s restaurant has gotten even worse since Trump became president, but at least it’s a sign that diplomacy hasn’t completely ground to a halt.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Sudanese opposition leaders declared on Saturday that they’d agreed to an Ethiopian-brokered compromise in their ongoing political conflict with Sudan’s ruling military junta. The deal, which could pave the way for a civilian transitional government to assume power, would resolve their main dispute, over control of a sovereign executive council, by filling that council with seven members of the civilian opposition, seven members of the junta, and one “impartial” appointee. On Sunday, however, the junta announced that it had agreed to a compromise arranged by the African Union and was rejecting the Ethiopian deal. It’s not clear what’s in the AU proposal, but junta spokesman Shams el-Din Kabbashi suggested that the AU and the Ethiopians get their separate mediation efforts on the same page and try again. They may simply be trying to delay mediation altogether.

MAURITANIA

Mauritanians voted for a new president on Saturday, and with almost all of the votes counted Mohamed Ould Ghazouani, the candidate of the ruling Union for the Republic party, has reportedly won outright, avoiding a runoff with 51.9 percent of the vote. This vote will precipitate the first democratic transition since Mauritania became an independent state in 1960. Well, maybe. Opposition leaders are alleging fraud and hinting that they might challenge the result.

NIGERIA

The Multinational Joint Task Force (made up of soldiers from Benin, Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria) says that its soldiers killed 42 members of ISIS-West Africa in a battle in the Lake Chad region on Friday, while only losing one of its own soldiers. ISIS-West Africa says that its fighters killed 15 soldiers in the Nigerian town of Garno on Friday and hasn’t mentioned losing anybody. Both of these stories could be true, but it’s more likely they’re referring to the same incident and somebody isn’t telling the truth (or maybe both somebodies aren’t telling the truth).

ETHIOPIA

A weekend coup attempt in Ethiopia’s Amhara state killed at least four people, including the regional president and the Ethiopian army’s chief of staff. The coup started Saturday night when Amhara regional president Ambachew Mekonnen and an adviser were gunned down in an attack that’s also left the regional attorney general seriously wounded. Army Chief of Staff Seare Mekonnen and a retired Ethiopian general were subsequently killed at Seare's home in Addis Ababa by his bodyguard as they were planning a response to that initial attack. The coup attempt appears to have failed and does not seem to have been ethnically motivated.

KENYA

A group of fighters, probably from al-Shabab, attacked a police headquarters in Kenya’s Fafi district, close to the Somali border, on Friday night. Kenyan authorities say they killed three of the attackers without taking any casualties of their own.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Al Jazeera reports on the civilians caught up in ethnic violence in Ituri province in the eastern DRC:

EUROPE

CZECH REPUBLIC

Estimates suggest that at least 250,000 Czech citizens marched in Prague on Sunday, calling on Prime Minister Andrej Babiš to show himself the door. The demonstration was easily the largest in a series of protests over Babiš’s various corruption scandals and was the largest protest in the Czech Republic since the Velvet Revolution brought down the Communist Czechoslovakian government in 1989. Despite its size and the Czech Republic’s tense political climate the protest was peaceful.

GREECE

Polling indicates that Greece’s ruling Syriza party is in for a serious drubbing in the country’s July 7 parliamentary election. The New Democracy party is running nine points ahead of Syriza with 38.5 percent of the vote.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

Nicolás Maduro’s government spent the weekend arresting six senior military and police figures. It’s unclear why but the simplest explanation would be that all six were suspected of insufficient loyalty toward Maduro.

CUBA

While it’s completely failed in its efforts to oust Maduro, the Trump administration seems to have done an effective job of taking its frustrations over Venezuela out on the Cuban people:

Measures taken by Washington aimed at punishing Cuba for supporting Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro are deepening disruptions to foreign supply chains, scaring off some of the Canadian and other banks that have helped finance $2 billion in food imports annually, according to industry and Trump administration officials.

Facing a cash and credit crunch, the Cuban government last month reintroduced broad rationing, giving rise to several weeks of what many here describe as the longest food lines since Venezuelan oil and aid began flowing to the island during the early 2000s. 

Following new U.S. travel restrictions announced this month, cruise ships — the single biggest source of U.S. visitors to Cuba — have begun diverting around Cuban ports, offering passengers alternate routes or refunds. Trump administration officials calculate that their punitive steps will cut the number of Americans visiting Cuba by more than half. Nearly 600,000 visited last year.

Washington is also targeting Cuba’s energy supply, imposing sanctions on the Venezuelan state and private freight companies that ferry over increasingly intermittent shipments of oil and fuel. 

UNITED STATES

Finally, former Iranian foreign minister Ardeshir Zahedi and the International Crisis Group’s Ali Vaez take the Trump administration to task over its Iran policy:

The administration’s list of public missteps toward the Iranian people is as long as it is regrettable. It includes preventing almost all Iranians from visiting the United States; misstating the historic name of the Persian Gulf; failing to express sympathy with Iranians after terrorist attacks by the Islamic State and separatist groups; and, perhaps most consequentially, withdrawing from the nuclear deal that remains popular in Iran and to which many there had pinned their hopes for a better life.

These mistakes have helped transform top-down anti-Americanism in Iran into a bottom-up phenomenon. Nothing spurs a rally-around-the-flag effect among 83 million Iranians more than humiliation and threats of foreign aggression.

How can Iranians buy into the administration’s professions of positive intent when Washington selectively decries their leaders’ corruption and human rights violations while overlooking the same behavior among U.S. allies? Why didn’t President Trump ask his North Korean or Russian counterparts to fundamentally reorient their policies before he would engage them in fruitless pageantry?

The administration’s Iran policy is not a strategy. It is a pressure tactic wrapped in bellicosity folded inside a chimera. It is bereft of a viable vision and based on the naive assumption that overthrowing the Islamic republic will miraculously lead to a pluralistic and pro-American order. That previous U.S.-sponsored regime change in the region has ushered in failed states or worse autocracies seems to be an afterthought.