World update: May 18-19 2019

Stories from India, Australia, Austria, and more

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

According to the Russian government, the Syrian army stopped its offensive in rebel-held northwest Syria at midnight Sunday, and yet there have been multiple subsequent reports of new violence. Rebel groups and observers have reported airstrikes in Khan Shaykhun and artillery strikes in Jisr al-Shughur, while Syrian media has reported that the army did engage in some clashes along the southern border of Idlib province but only in response to rebel shelling. These are all areas in which rebel groups say they reinforced their lines during a “lull” in fighting on Saturday.

Meanwhile, in Latakia province the rebels say they’ve held off a Syrian attack on the mountainous region of Kubayna, and even accused the army of using chemical weapons in its attack. Kubyana is a high ground position that allows the holder to fire down on either Idlib province or the coastal plains of Latakia, where for example Russia Khmeimim airbase is located. Speaking of which, rebels reportedly fired “projectiles” at Khmeimim on Saturday, but they were “thwarted” by air defense systems.

Syrian media reported that the country’s air defenses intercepted projectiles fired from the direction of Israel on Saturday night. That made two nights in a row that Israeli has apparently shelled Syria. Friday night’s fire targeted areas around Damascus but it’s unclear what the Israelis hit on Saturday.

TURKEY

Not only is Turkey still committed to buying Russia’s S-400 air defense system despite US objections, it’s apparently going to collaborate with the Russians on building the next generation S-500 system. I hear that one incorporates advanced psychological warfare technology to make missiles question why they ever got into the missile business in the first place. Anyway, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insists that it is “not an option” for the US to withhold Turkey’s purchase of the F-35 on account of the S-400 deal. I guess we’ll see.

IRAQ

A roadside bomb struck a bus carrying Iraqi Popular Mobilization paramilitary forces in Diyala province on Sunday, killing at least seven people. No group has claimed responsibility but ISIS is active in Diyala and does like to target Shiʿa militia groups. Later on Sunday somebody fired a rocket into Baghdad’s Green Zone, an area that includes the US embassy. The rocket didn’t hit the embassy and apparently caused no casualties, but for a US contingent in Iraq that’s on high alert over alleged threats from pro-Iran Iraqi militias, this could heighten tensions.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Trump administration is planning to hold an “economic workshop” in Bahrain next month to encourage investment in the Palestinian economy. Unless plans change, this will be the first stage in rolling out the Kushner Accords, the Israel-Palestine peace deal that will likely ask Palestinians to sell their hopes for a self-governing state. They’ll start with the appealing parts of the accords before they dig into the political aspects of the settlement, which is where the Palestinians will probably balk.

EGYPT

A roadside bomb outside of Giza struck a bus full of tourists on Sunday. Casualty figures have varied, but it would appear that at least 12 and as many as 16 (so far—it’s still early) people were wounded in the attack. Some sort of Islamist group is the likely culprit—tourists are an attractive target for those groups because anything that hurts the Egyptian tourism business cuts right into the country’s economic lifeblood.

The US House of Representatives may be looking to hold the Egyptian government accountable for its human rights record:

The foreign aid spending bill for fiscal year 2020, which the House Appropriations Committee advanced 29-23 Thursday, contains language that would condition $260 million in annual military aid to progress on human rights and democracy. Egypt receives $1.3 billion in annual US military aid.

In recent years, House appropriators had resisted their Senate colleagues’ demands to restrict Egyptian aid. But this year’s bill indicates that the committee’s new chairwoman, Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., is ready to take a tougher line on the crackdown on dissident voices under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Given Donald Trump’s appreciation for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, he’ll no doubt attempt to get this language removed from the bill. But if the Senate agrees with the House, will Trump veto the bill for Sisi?

SAUDI ARABIA

The Saudi government is convening an emergency summit for Arab leaders in Mecca on May 30, to discuss Iran’s dastardly (alleged) deeds. Should be a fun time. The Saudis say they do “not want a war in the region” (apart from the one in Yemen, I guess) but “will respond with all force and determination” if “the other side chooses war.”

IRAN

Donald Trump threatened Iran again on Sunday. Of course the threat came on Twitter, and of course it was in response to a segment that was airing on Fox News:

This is an old man yelling at his TV, and just because this particular old man is the president of the United States it doesn’t necessarily make it any more serious than that. Recall that Trump threatened to nuke North Korea a few months before he was palling around with Kim Jong-un in Singapore, and then take a deep breath.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

Afghan officials say that at least nine people were killed in a clash between “between illegal armed groups” in Takhar province on Saturday. That phrasing suggests ethnic militias or something similar as opposed to, say, the Taliban or ISIS. Meanwhile, two police officers were killed on Saturday in a roadside bombing in Helmand province, at least three children were killed in a bombing targeting a market in Herat province, and at least five people were wounded in a grenade attack on a police checkpoint in Nangarhar province. Also too, on Sunday Afghan legislators had themselves a big old fistfight as parliament convened, due to controversy over their first attempt to elect a speaker. So everything seems to be going really well.

INDIA

In a result that may defy pre-election polling (which wouldn’t be the only one—see below), some exit polls are predicting a big win for India’s ruling National Democratic Alliance. They’ve got Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s coalition bringing in anywhere between 339 and 365 seats in the next parliament, an improvement on the NDA’s 336 seats in the 2014 election. Polling had suggested the NDA could lose seats and might even be at risk of losing its majority. At least one exit poll does have the coalition at 267 seats, five shy of a majority, and others have it losing seats while retaining its majority—in general, any exit poll can be kind of a crap shoot in India’s massive, multi-week elections. Results will be announced on May 23 so it’s probably best to wait until then to draw any conclusions.

OCEANIA

AUSTRALIA

Now, in a result that definitely did defy pre-election polling, Australia’s ruling Liberal-National Coalition has apparently won Saturday’s parliamentary election. Votes are still being counted, but the coalition looks set to win a 77 seat majority in the House of Representatives. To be more precise, it’s won 75 seats and is ahead in two seats where the count hasn’t yet finished. Even if it remains stuck on 75, the coalition should be able to form a government with the help of independent MPs.

The victorious Scott Morrison

The result is a stunning victory for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who will likely get all the credit for engineering this victory, and a catastrophe for the opposition Labor Party, whose leader Bill Shorten understandably has resigned after coughing up what appeared to be a gimme election. It’s also a repudiation of the polls, which have shown Labor ahead in a head-to-head matchup for weeks now. Shorten, who consistently polled behind Morrison on the question of which one Australians would prefer to see as PM, will take much of the blame for the loss and the party will probably conclude that its milquetoast center-leftism was too radical for voters and that the only solution is to move to the right.

The election seems to have turned in part on the climate change front:

The polls said this would be Australia’s climate change election, when voters confronted harsh reality and elected leaders who would tackle the problem.

And in some districts, it was true: Tony Abbott, the former prime minister who stymied climate policy for years, lost to an independent who campaigned on the issue. A few other new candidates prioritizing climate change also won.

But over all, Australians shrugged off the warming seas killing the Great Barrier Reef and the extreme drought punishing farmers. On Saturday, in a result that stunned most analysts, they re-elected the conservative coalition that has long resisted plans to sharply cut down on carbon emissions and coal.

What it could mean is that the world’s climate wars — already raging for years — are likely to intensify. Left-leaning candidates elsewhere, like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, may learn to avoid making climate a campaign issue, while here in Australia, conservatives face more enraged opponents and a more divided public.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Sudan’s ruling military junta and opposition leaders resumed negotiations on a transitional government on Sunday. They’d last met on Wednesday, when the junta decided to suspend talks for 72 hours in anger over ongoing protests and civil disobedience in Khartoum. At this point the parties only seem divided on whether the military or civilians should control a proposed “sovereign council” that would exercise the duties of the president during the transition.

The Saudis have Venmoed (or whatever) another $250 million to the junta, presumably to encourage it to stay the authoritarian course and not give into the mob, AKA the Sudanese people.

LIBYA

Gunmen attacked the Zella oilfield in central Libya on Saturday (I’m not sure what Reuters is talking about when it places Zella southwest of Tripoli, when in fact it’s southeast of Tripoli), killing at least three people before bolting. They didn’t damage the facility but the attack could have been a first step in a bigger operation. ISIS later claimed responsibility.

While it’s well-known that Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” has been getting help, often in the form of equipment and air support, from Egypt and the UAE, evidence is emerging to suggest that Libya’s internationally recognized Government of National Accord has also been getting some outside help from Turkey. Specifically, Turkey appears to be supplying Tripoli with armored vehicles. This makes sense given that the GNA is friendly with some Islamist/Muslim Brotherhood types, and also in the sense that nowadays if the UAE is for it, Turkey is going to be against it, and vice versa.

TUNISIA

Tunisia’s Amazigh community is forming its first dedicated political party:

The Akal movement arose during Tunisia’s 2011 revolution as a civil force to defend the rights of the country’s native Amazighs and preserve their cultural heritage. Today, the movement’s founders are turning the group into a political party that will participate in the legislative and presidential elections this year, according to Akal leader Samir al-Nefzi, who spoke with Al-Monitor.

Movement members announced at a May 6 press conference in the capital that they have applied to the government to form a party and are awaiting official permission to start their political activities. There are already 217 parties in the country, but this will be the Amazighs' first.

Tunisia's legislative elections are scheduled for Oct. 6, and the presidential election is set for Nov. 17.

The issue of Amazigh rights is a longstanding hot button in Tunisian politics, as their culture and language is frequently marginalized under Tunisian law. But the country’s constitution could be interpreted to bar the formation of a political party on purely ethnic lines, so this new effort may not have a chance to get underway.

MALI

One Nigerian United Nations peacekeeper was killed in Timbuktu and three Chadian peacekeepers were killed in Tessalit by unknown attackers over the weekend. Northern Mali is the base of operations for Mali’s al-Qaeda affiliate, Jamaʿat Nasr al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin, and there’s a high probability it was involved.

BURKINA FASO

Burkina Faso’s extremist violence seems to be changing forms:

The terrorists appear to have shifted their goals from stoking conflict between farmers and herders to inducing a similar divide between Muslims and Christians, Burkina Faso’s president, Roch Marc Christian Kaboré, said recently.

“These terrorists have reorganized their way of operating,” Mr. Kaboré told a conference of Christian leaders in the capital, Ouagadougou, on Tuesday, according to local news reports.

“They have developed their mode of operation,” he said, “seeking first to create an intercommunity conflict, and today an interreligious conflict.”

EUROPE

AUSTRIA

Austria’s governing coalition has collapsed, after a video surfaced that appears to show Heinz-Christian Strache, leader of the far-right Freedom Party, appearing to offer state contracts for cash from a wealthy Russian national. Strache (who resigned when the video became public) also suggested he has dirt on Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, which probably didn’t do as much to motivate Kurz to dissolve the government as did all the protesters who showed up in downtown Vienna on Saturday.

Austria will now hold a new parliamentary election, probably in September. Kurz’s People’s Party has a commanding lead in opinion polls, but it’s unclear how it could find a path to a majority coalition without again teaming with the Freedom Party—unless Kurz is able to poach a large number of Freedom Party voters in the wake of the scandal. On the other hand, polling suggests that none of Austria’s opposition parties will have any path to forming a majority coalition whatsoever.

SWITZERLAND

Swiss voters on Sunday voted to approve a measure restricting ownership of semi-automatic rifles in line with new European Union regulations. The vote is sure to anger Swiss gun enthusiasts, but a “no” vote could have threatened Switzerland’s membership in Europe’s open-border Schengen Zone.

UNITED KINGDOM

Theresa May says she’s going to present MPs with a “new, bold offer” to entice them to pass her Brexit plan on its fourth go-round. It’s unclear what that offer might be, because as far as anybody can tell she’s still trying to ram through the same unpopular measure that parliament has already rejected three times.

AMERICAS

ARGENTINA

Former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner is going to run for vice president, not president, in October’s election. Kirchner was expected to be the main challenger for incumber Mauricio Macri, whose fixation on austerity hasn’t done much for his approval rating. Alberto Fernández, a former Chief of the Cabinet Ministers (think “prime minister”), will instead be the presidential candidate for Kirchner’s Justicialist Party. Kirchner may have been both the strongest and weakest of Macri’s potential challengers, since voters know who she is and both her approval and disapproval ratings probably don’t have very far to move. Fernández is a less known quantity, but obviously that could cut both ways. Presumably having Kirchner in the #2 spot is supposed to appeal to her supporters while easing the concerns of people who may have been on the fence.

UNITED STATES

Finally, while Republicans across the country seem hell bent on setting women’s rights back a century or so, the Trump administration is equally hell bent on doing the same thing overseas:

The Trump administration pushed the G7 nations to water down a declaration on gender equality last week as part of its broad effort to stamp out references to sexual and reproductive health in international institutions, according to people involved in the process and drafts reviewed by Foreign Policy.

It is only the latest iteration of the administration’s hard-line stance against any language that might suggest approval of abortion in the official documents of international institutions that include the United States. The heavy-handed diplomatic strategy has put Washington at odds with European allies and drawn criticism from women’s advocacy groups for undercutting wider efforts to improve global gender equality.

The Group of 7, representing seven of the most advanced economies in the world, issued a communique on women’s equality this month that was pared down in some sections from initial drafts circulated in advance among diplomats and experts.

U.S. officials raised red lines on what should be axed from the communique, including a seemingly innocuous section praising the G7’s Gender Equality Advisory Council, an independent group of experts and diplomats working on gender equality, and language on reproductive health.

The administration has been targeting the phrase “sexual and reproductive health” in international agreements and other documents, arguing that it’s a euphemism for abortion. It’s not, and in forcing the phrase to be deleted from those documents our regressive government has potentially weakened efforts “to tackle issues such as sexual violence, child marriage, and HIV prevention.” Good for us.