World update: March 5 2020

Stories from Syria, India, Greece, and more

This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges. Thanks for reading! But did you know you can get FX delivered right to your email inbox? Sign up today:


As I mentioned on Tuesday, tonight’s update is going to be the last for a few days as Foreign Exchanges HQ relocates. Barring any major unforeseen complications I’m hoping we’ll be able to resume normal operations sometime in the March 15-17 window. Thanks for reading!

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

March 4, 1493: Christopher Columbus and his crew aboard the Niña arrive at the port of Lisbon, Portugal, on their return from his first voyage to the soon-to-be-known-as Americas. After navigating some legal hot water over interpretations of the 1479 Treaty of Alcáçovas, which divided the Atlantic into Portuguese and Spanish spheres of influence, Columbus returned to Spain, convinced he’d charted a western route to Asia. He was slightly off, but I guess they eventually figured that out.

March 4, 1913: Greek forces defeat a very well-entrenched Ottoman army in the Battle of Bizani, one of the final engagements of the First Balkan War. The Greek victory meant that the city of Ioannina and the surrounding southern Epirus region came under Athens’ control, instead of winding up part of newly independent Albania.

March 5, 363: The Roman Emperor Julian, later known as Julian the Apostate since he has the distinction of being the last non-Christian Roman ruler, leads his army east to invade the Sasanian (Persian) Empire. Roman invasions of Persia generally turned out to be mistakes, and though he was a skilled military commander this campaign was certainly no exception. After some initial successes, Julian gave up his plan to besiege Ctesiphon and instead he led his army on an aimless march through the Persian Empire, harassed the whole way by Persian forces. He died of wounds suffered in the Battle of Samarra in June. The army chose his successor, a general named Jovian who ordered a prompt retreat back to Roman territory.

March 5, 1046: One of the greatest travelers in Islamic history, Nasir Khusraw, departs the Central Asian city of Merv to make the Hajj pilgrimage. He spent the next seven years traveling the Middle East, making several more trips to Mecca, visiting Cairo, converting to Ismaʿili Shiʿism, and finally reaching the region of Khorasan in 1052 as an Ismaʿili missionary. He recorded these travels in a book, the Safarnama, which is one of the most famous travelogues ever produced and became one of the early classics of the recently rejuvenated Persian language.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Israel apparently launched missile strikes against targets in both Quneitra and Homs provinces overnight. There’s no word on any casualties or even any material damage. There are several airbases and other facilities used by Iranian-aligned fighters in Homs and Hezbollah is active in Quneitra.

In Idlib, meanwhile, the Turkish military says two more of its soldiers were killed Thursday in clashes with pro-government forces. But there’s actual maybe good news to report, as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin has resulted in a ceasefire agreement for what’s left of the rebel pocket in northwestern Syria. The deal is to go into effect at midnight local time, which is about 90 minutes away as I’m writing this but will probably have passed by the time I post it and certainly by the time most of you read it. Its centerpiece is the creation of a 12 kilometer “corridor,” six kilometers on either side of the M4 highway that runs through Idlib. Russia and Turkey will jointly patrol that corridor to maintain the ceasefire. Presumably this will allow the opening of the highway and more or less locks in the recent territorial gains the Syrian military has made, but for Turkey the main concern is ending the fighting and the related flow of refugees north.

Will the agreement hold? I have my doubts. It’s only going to be as strong as the Syrian military and Idlib’s rebel fighters allow it to be, and you’ll note that neither of those parties was present at Thursday’s negotiation. It does seem like a deal the Syrian government ought to be able to accept, at least for a while, because it should leave the M5 highway in government hands and open the M4 to traffic. The rebels may be a different story, and Turkey’s ability to control them (especially Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the most powerful group in Idlib) has never been demonstrated.

IRAQ

Somebody fired three Katyusha rockets toward Baghdad’s Green Zone on Wednesday. Two of them landed inside the zone but there are no reports of casualties and nothing yet on any potential damage.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli journalist Barak Ravid is reporting on a fascinating development in Israel’s political stalemate, one that could hand Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a potentially career-ending defeat. To recap: Israel has now held three consecutive inconclusive elections—last April, last September, and earlier this month. The common denominator in each of these elections has been Netanyahu, whose far right bloc is too unwieldy to attract a large enough coalition to form a government but large enough to prevent Israel’s other major parties from forming a government without him. The problem is that he’s become personally radioactive because of his corruption scandals, so none of his rivals have been willing to put their rivalries aside in order to serve with or under him.

The votes are in from Monday’s election and they give Netanyahu’s bloc 58 seats, 36 of which belong to his Likud Party. That’s three shy of a majority. Netanyahu’s only path to avoiding another election seems to be convincing individual legislators from one or more opposition parties to defect. On the other hand, that means there’s an anti-Netanyahu bloc that has a majority of 62 seats. The problem is that majority includes the Arab Joint List, which has 15 seats but is always excluded from serious Israeli politics because it’s predominantly Arab, and secular conservative Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party, which has seven seats. In the past Liberman has refused to back either Netanyahu or his main rival, Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz, trying to force them to form a unity government of sorts. This time it appears he’s ready to back Gantz. However, Liberman has also said in the past that he will never bring his party into a coalition with the Joint List, and Gantz needs all of their seats to get to that 62 seat majority.

If the Joint List were to be brought in from the cold (and it’s worth noting that some Joint List leaders have balked in the past at the idea of participating in an Israeli government led by a Zionist party and thereby legitimizing it), and Liberman were willing to enter a coalition that included the Arab parties, suddenly Gantz would be looking at a realistic path to a majority. It’s a majority that couldn’t possibly hold together very long. But what if, as Ravid is reporting, it held together just long enough to pass a bill banning anyone under criminal indictment (as Netanyahu is, thanks to the corruption scandals) from serving as prime minister? It wouldn’t even have to formally take office under this scenario—just getting Gantz picked as the PM-designate could allow him to advance such legislation.

This bro-fest could be coming to an end (White House photo via Flickr)

That could change everything. With Netanyahu barred from the premiership, Gantz’s unwieldy coalition could break up, and he could either call for another election or enter that unity coalition with a Likud Party that’s under new management. It would deny Netanyahu the Knesset-granted immunity he’s hoping will shield him from prosecution on those corruption charges. In other words, it would end his political career and might even help send him to prison. It must be said that this outcome is exceedingly unlikely, as it requires multiple things to go exactly right and there would be parliamentary hurdles to overcome as well as the potential for Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to intervene (though he’s no Netanyahu fan). But it’s an interesting new wrinkle in this story.

ASIA

GEORGIA

The US, UK, and Estonian governments are accusing Russia of carrying out cyber-attacks against Georgia:

The three Western countries said the attacks demonstrate “a continuing pattern of reckless ... cyber operations against a number of countries” by Russia’s GRU military intelligence.

“These actions clearly contradict Russia’s attempts to claim it is a responsible actor in cyberspace,” they said, adding that “irresponsibility in cyberspace is detrimental to all of us.”

Georgia’s Foreign Ministry said the Oct. 28 cyber attack was “targeted at Georgia’s national security and intended to harm Georgian citizens and government structures by disrupting and paralyzing the functionality of various organizations, causing anxiety among the general public.”

Russia’s Foreign Ministry has rejected the accusations as “unfounded and politically driven,” saying there was no evidence of Russian involvement. It added that the accusations reflect Georgia’s efforts at “demonization” of Russia and would further cloud ties.

AFGHANISTAN

The International Criminal Court ruled Thursday that it’s going to proceed with an investigation into war crimes committed during the Afghan war, including any committed by the United States military. The ICC had previously decided against going forward with an investigation but overturned that decision on appeal. I’m sure the Trump administration will take this news with grace and humilit-

Ah, OK. Never mind.

Meanwhile, Afghan “Chief Executive” Abdullah Abdullah, officially the runner up to incumbent Ashraf Ghani in September’s presidential election, is threatening to inaugurate himself president anyway. Abdullah alleges that the official results are fraudulent and that he was the real winner of the contest. Ghani has postponed his inauguration once at US behest, but he’s now planning to hold it on Monday, and Abdullah says he’ll do likewise.

INDIA

It’s no secret that Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi failed to conclude a broad trade agreement when Trump visited India last week, but Trump did say he believes they’ll conclude one in the near future. The Asia Society Policy Institute’s Anubhav Gupta argues that’s unlikely:

But amid all the ceremony and talk of bilateral “love,” a much-anticipated trade agreement was glaringly missing. Both governments had raised expectations during the lead-up to the trip that a deal was within reach, and the State Department’s top diplomat for South Asia admitted that not reaching even a modest, phase-one trade agreement “would be a big setback.” Now, it is unlikely that a deal will come together before the U.S. presidential election in November, kicking any resolution of trade tensions to 2021.

Trump papered over the failure to secure a trade deal during his stay, saying he expected a much larger agreement in the future. That stretches credulity given the two nations’ inability to complete even a modest deal after more than a year of sustained negotiations.

U.S.-India trade tensions have persisted for the past two years because the twin economic nationalisms driving them are organizing principles, not just peripheral features, of Trump’s and Modi’s doctrines. The two leaders have outlined “America First” and “India First” economic policies that value short-term transactions over long-term economic fundamentals and strategic priorities. This ensures that, far from completing the comprehensive trade agreement Trump hinted at, these two strategic partners will likely continue to clash over minor trade issues.

CHINA

There are now, according to BNO News, 97,751 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with 3352 fatalities. We’ve apparently reached the stage of this story where the media starts throwing Big Numbers at everybody, because there were some real big ones tossed around today. Take, for example, the roughly $113 billion it looks like major airlines are set to lose this year thanks to a steep decline in demand for air travel. More alarming is the estimated 300 million children the United Nations says are missing school around the world as a result of the virus. If that continues for any length of time it could have serious ramifications. And OPEC is in on this game too, holding emergency talks in Vienna this week aimed at agreeing to cut global oil supplies by 1.5 million barrels per day starting next month in response to lowered demand. Global oil prices have been on a steep slide since January and are now hovering around $50/barrel, far too low for the comfort of most major oil producers. The hope is that large non-OPEC producers like Russia will account for a third of that cut, and there’s a meeting of the “OPEC+” group scheduled for Friday to discuss it.

NORTH KOREA

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has sent a letter to South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressing his best wishes for South Koreans’ recovery from the coronavirus outbreak. That’s really all there is to this story, except to note that when Kim has reached out like this in the past it has tended to lead to some sort of diplomatic development. It’s obviously impossible to say yet whether that will be the case here.

AFRICA

LIBYA

Tripoli’s Mitiga airport had to be shut down again on Thursday due to rocket fire from Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army.” The facility has been under sustained attack by the LNA all week. This may suggest that the LNA is making some gains in its offensive against the Libyan capital.

IVORY COAST

Ivory Coast President Alassane Ouattara says he’s not going to seek a controversial third term in office after all. There’s been speculation that Ouattara would run in October’s presidential election even though that wouldn’t strictly speaking be legal, and he’s threatened to do so if two of his political rivals and predecessors decided to run. But Thursday’s announcement, in which Ouattara talked about “[transferring] power to a new generation,” seems to foreclose on that possibility regardless of what they do.

EUROPE

GREECE

Greek authorities say they’ve kept some 35,000 migrants out of the country since Turkey decided to stop blocking Syrian refugees from entering Europe late last week. What an achievement. They must be very proud of helping to further immiserate that many already miserable people. They plan to begin deporting hundreds of refugees who managed to cross the border but were then apprehended. Athens plans to send those migrants back to their home countries, which is going to be a neat trick for those who have come from Syria since it’s a violation of international refugee law to return those people to an active war zone.

The Turkish government, meanwhile, is feigning deep concern for the migrants, accusing Greek police of wounding scores of them and threatening to bring a case against Greece before the European Court of Human Rights even as Ankara deploys an additional 1000 border guards to the region to prevent those migrants who can’t get into Greece from reentering Turkey. Compassion all the way around.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

The Brazilian government is downgrading its diplomatic relations with Venezuela and has begun pulling diplomatic personnel out of that country. It is not completely severing ties, however it is also refusing to renew the credentials of Venezuelan diplomats currently in Brazil, choosing instead to recognize representatives of would-be Venezuelan president Juan Guaidó.

NICARAGUA

The Trump administration on Thursday sanctions Nicaragua’s national police force and three of its commissioners over allegations of human rights abuses against protesters. The sanctions are mostly symbolic unless the police force or any of those commissioners happen to have assets in the US.

UNITED STATES

Finally, in his Substack newsletter journalist Jonathan Katz recounts the Centers for Disease Control’s negligence in responding to a cholera outbreak in Haiti 2010 and what it might mean for the US effort to contain COVID-19:

It was only years later, after more than 10,000 people were dead, and the U.N. came around to admitting (grudgingly, without holding anyone accountable) that it had sparked the epidemic, that I uncovered the disturbing truth: The CDC—and at least some high-ranking officials in the Obama White House—had known from the beginning that it was possible international responders had introduced cholera to Haiti, and refused to pursue it for political reasons.

If you’ve been paying attention to the burgeoning coronavirus outbreak, you know why I’m re-telling this story. Everything that we know about the spread of Covid-19 in the United States comes from the CDC and its parent department in the executive branch, Health and Human Services. So far, the official totals are 115 people infected, nine dead.

There is strong reason to believe the real toll is much higher, and being underreported for political reasons. That could have disastrous consequences for all of us.