World update: November 19 2019

Stories from Iran, South Korea, Ethiopia, and more


November 18, 1803: The Battle of Vertières, the final major battle of the Haitian Revolution, results in a decisive Haitian victory over a heavily outnumbered French expeditionary army. The French, under the Vicomte de Rochambeau, negotiated their withdrawal from the island and Haitian leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines declared independence on January 1, 1804.

November 18, 1916: The Battle of the Somme, which had begun on July 1, ends with over one million dead and wounded in total and only very minor Allied tactical gains to show for it. Strategically the battle did help the green British army gain experience while forcing Germany into a war of attrition that it couldn’t possibly sustain. Arguably the best example of the meat grinder approach to war and callous indifference to lower rank casualties that were so prevalent during World War I.

November 19, 636: The Battle of al-Qadisiyah ends

November 19, 1256: The last Assassin imam surrenders to the Mongols



Those explosions heard near Damascus early Tuesday morning were probably Israeli retaliatory strikes for the four rockets that were fired at the Golan and intercepted by Israeli defenses, also on Tuesday morning. But nobody seems to be talking in any detail about them. The Israelis rarely admit to their military strikes but the Syrians usually at least acknowledge casualties or damage or something. That’s not really happening in this case for some reason.

This is still developing, but it appears the Israelis launched another, much larger, retaliatory strike against Syria on Wednesday morning. The Israelis say they attacked “dozens of military targets belonging to the Iranian Quds Force and the Syrian Army.” Syrian media says the country’s missile defenses intercepted most of the Israeli missiles, but Syrian media tends to exaggerate such things.

The Turkish defense ministry on Tuesday accused the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia of shelling a school in Tel Abyad, killing at least three people and wounding eight others. The allegation came a day after the Turks issued yet another threat to launch a new offensive in northeastern Syria to clear “terrorists” from the area around the border.

Turkey has been issuing those threats regularly, but not quite so explicitly in the weeks since the US withdrew from northeastern Syria and Russia moved in as the controlling power. The Russians on Tuesday reacted negatively to the Turkish threat, with the Russian defense ministry expressing puzzlement over the claim that the YPG is still active around the border. A spokesperson for the Russian defense ministry warned that the Turkish threat “can only escalate the situation in northern Syria.” That said, the Russians also announced on Tuesday that they’re moving additional military police into northeastern Syria to bolster the forces that have been conducting joint patrols of the border region with Turkey.


The South Korean Foreign Ministry said Wednesday morning that the Houthis have released the three vessels and 16 people they seized in the Red Sea over the weekend. It remains unclear why the Houthis seized those ships, beyond a suggestion from them that the “suspect” ships were detected in Yemeni waters.


Protesters were able to shut down a second port in southern Iraq on Tuesday when they were able to block the entrance at Khor al-Zubair to prevent shipping trucks from getting in or out. The blockade did not affect the importation of oil products and gas condensates, which account for much of Khor al-Zubair’s traffic and are handled through pipelines and other facilities that are separate from the commodities port. Protesters already blockaded Iraq’s largest port, Umm Qasr, on Monday, and as of Tuesday Iraqi officials said that operations there were completely shut down. The big challenge if these blockades continue is going to be bringing food into the country. Iraq is heavily dependent on food imports and it’s hard to figure how the government will be able to get around the closure of its two largest seaports.

Khor al-Zubair’s location, near Umm Qasr and Basra (Google Maps)


By blocking streets in Beirut and challenging anything that looked like an official vehicle, protesters in Lebanon were able on Tuesday to prevent the Lebanese parliament from holding what would have been its first session in about two months. The session was supposed to take place last week and had already been postponed once because of unrest. It’s now been postponed indefinitely.


Former Kuwaiti foreign minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khalid al-Sabah was named the country’s new prime minister on Tuesday by Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah. Former PM Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak al-Hamad al-Sabah refused reappointment to that office on Monday amid an ongoing and embarrassing scandal over the possible misuse of military funding by former defense minister and interior minister Sheikh Khalid al-Jarrah al-Sabah.


In Iran, meanwhile, protesters are getting killed, probably at a much higher rate than has been acknowledged by the Iranian government. Iranian officials have acknowledged 12 protester deaths since demonstrations against a gas price increase began late last week, along with three members of the Iranian security forces who were reportedly killed by knife-wielding attackers on Monday outside of Tehran. But Amnesty International says it has “credible reports” of 106 protesters killed across 21 cities and has additional reports that would push the death toll up over 200. The Iranian government now claims the demonstrations are tailing off, but its ongoing internet blackout makes that impossible to verify and lends credence to the suspicions about a higher death toll.



Eurasianet’s Joshua Kucera writes that, although they’ve experienced a lot of protests recently over a wide variety of issues, most Georgians are still more concerned about the economy than anything else:

The last few months in Georgia have seen a series of dramatic public protests: about Russia and an out-of-touch government this summer, about a film depicting a Georgian gay love story earlier this month, and most recently about the government’s retreat on a promise to change the electoral system.

But in a newly released poll, these issues barely rate on Georgians’ lists of what they see as the country’s most pressing issues. Asked “What is the most important problem facing our government today?” Georgians overwhelmingly list economic issues, the International Republican Institute poll found. “Unemployment” was named by 68 percent of respondents, “Cost of living/high prices” by 45 percent, and “Poverty” by 21 percent. (Respondents were given an open-ended question and could give multiple answers.)

Russia-related issues rated much lower. “Lost territories” – referring to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the breakaway regions that are heavily backed by Moscow – was named by 6 percent of respondents. “External conflicts/war” was named by 5 percent, and “Insecurity” by 2 percent.

Complaints about the government barely rated. Two percent of respondents named “Incompetent government.”


The Afghan government finally carried out its prisoner swap with the Taliban on Tuesday, releasing three Taliban prisoners in return for the release of an American and an Australian who were both kidnapped by the group in 2016 while working as professors at the American University of Afghanistan. The swap was supposed to happen about a week ago, but Kabul appeared to get cold feet and the whole thing got put in limbo. It’s hoped that the exchange—which may also include some Afghan nationals being held by the Taliban, but that piece is less certain—could lead to direct negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Tuesday declared “victory” over the Islamic State’s Khorasan affiliate. Apparently there’s been a veritable flood of IS fighters surrendering to Afghan authorities recently—some 600 of them plus their families. Still, there’s no particular reason to believe that ISK is now defunct, or even that it’s defunct in Afghanistan, and at any rate the Afghan government didn’t exactly defeat it alone. Indeed, the Taliban would deserve substantial credit if ISK has really been defeated—a fact that the Taliban pointed out in a response to Ghani’s proclamation.


The standoff between protesters and police on the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University continued on Tuesday, though only a small number of protesters remain:

A days-long tense standoff between protesters and police is grinding on at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The numbers of protesters barricaded inside the school has dwindled to about 100, and their food supplies are rapidly depleting after police surrounded the campus on Sunday.

The situation is growing so desperate for the remaining protesters that several of them unsuccessfully attempted to escape the police siege by climbing through sewer drains, according to local media.

Police say they've arrested about 1,100 people in the past day. At a Tuesday news conference, officers accused the protesters of crimes such as taking part in riots and possessing dangerous weapons.

Among those 1100 arrests are hundreds of people who attempted to flee the campus on Tuesday, some via the sewers. Police say they have not used live ammunition against the protesters but are still threatening to do so if the standoff continues.


First a correction: yesterday I was under the impression that it was South Korea that broke off talks with the US on extending their security pact over Donald Trump’s demand that Seoul increase its payment for the US deployment in South Korea from $1 billion per year to $5 billion per year. It was actually the United States that walked out of the talks. South Korean officials say that US negotiators have not threatened to withdraw US forces from the country altogether (though Trump has previously threatened to do so). Given that the US bases forces in South Korea as much to fulfill US objectives for force projection in East Asia as it does for Seoul’s benefit, it makes sense that the Pentagon doesn’t want to entertain the idea of pulling those forces out. The idea of increasing South Korea’s share of the cost for the US military deployment polls very badly with South Korean voters, which is contributing to the impasse.

In the meantime, though, the South Koreans have negotiated another security agreement, with China. It’s just sort of a preliminary, “let’s get along better” kind of deal, but if the US keeps demanding an exorbitant amount of money from Seoul. the South Koreans could start to gravitate toward China as an alternative.



Inter-communal violence involving Sudan’s Beni Amer and Hadendowa tribes left at least three people dead on Monday in Port Sudan. Another 24 people were injured in the fighting, which prompted authorities to impose a nighttime curfew in the port city.


The “Libyan National Army” bombed the city of Misrata on Tuesday morning, ostensibly striking a munitions depot and armored vehicles sent to the Libyan government by Turkey. I say “ostensibly” because keen LNA marksmen bombed a cookie factory in Tripoli on Monday, so it’s anybody’s guess what they’re really bombing at this point. As far as I can tell there were no casualties in the Misrata attack.


The Malian army briefly invaded Burkina Faso on Saturday, according to a complaint by the Burkinabe government. Fulani militia from Mali crossed the border to attack a Dozo village in northern Burkina Faso, it seems, and Malian forces attempted to chase them. But after crossing the border, they encountered not the Fulani they were chasing, but a Dozo militia that had mobilized in response to the attack. The Burkinabe soldiers proceeded to open fire on the Dozo, killing three of them. The Malian government, on the other hand, says that it was the Dozo who crossed the border into Mali to attack a Fulani village, and the Malian army then chased them back across the border into Burkina Faso. Either way it’s not a great situation for two countries that are supposed to be working together to clamp down on insurgent violence as part of the G5 Sahel project.


Members of Ethiopia’s Sidama community are expected to vote to declare themselves the country’s tenth autonomous ethnic group in a referendum on Wednesday. Ethiopia currently consists of nine autonomous ethnic regions, four of which correspond to the country’s four largest ethnic groups. The Sidama are number five, but they’re currently administered with several other groups in Ethiopia’s Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples' Region. There’s been a general increase in ethnic nationalism—as opposed to Ethiopian nationalism—as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has opened up the country’s political system, and clashes over the issue of Sidama statehood led to 17 deaths back in July.



A scant 13 months since Bosnia’s October 2018 election, the country finally has a prime minister. The three-headed (Bosniak, Croat, and Serb) Bosnian presidency on Thursday tapped a Bosnian Serb economist named Zoran Tegeltija as PM. He’s been the choice of Bosnian Serb co-president Milorad Dodik, but the Bosniak and Croat co-presidents have been unwilling to approve him because Dodik has been interfering with the country’s NATO application process. They’ve managed to compromise on the NATO issue, which then unlocked the PM impasse. A full government should follow.


A new YouGov poll shows the race narrowing somewhat as the UK approaches its December 12 snap election. The survey has Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party ahead of Labour 42-30, narrower than last week’s 45-28 edge.



At least three more people are dead after more clashes between pro-Evo Morales protesters and Bolivian security forces on Tuesday. Another 22 people were injured when the Bolivian military rolled out armored vehicles and helicopters to break a blockade that demonstrators had set up around the Senkata gas plant near La Paz. In an effort to reduce tensions, Morales’s Movement for Socialism (MAS) party agreed to postpone a vote on the former president’s resignation that had been scheduled for Tuesday evening. Because it holds majorities in both houses of the Bolivian Congress, MAS could have voted to reject Morales’s resignation, which would have added even more chaos to an already very chaotic situation. While Morales supporters and the right-wing junta that ousted him battle one another, residents of La Paz are increasingly feeling the pinch, with food and fuel harder and harder to obtain.


Finally, and I’m not sure how convinced I am of this argument but I try to share these sorts of thinkpieces when I find them, Georgetown University’s Abraham Newman and Daniel Nexon argue that progressive foreign policy needs to use US market power to effect global change:

But while Trump focuses on specific sectors and corporate interests, progressives in the Democratic presidential primary race favor approaches that protect U.S. workers by improving conditions abroad. Thus, Warren calls for the United States to use its “leverage to force other countries to raise the bar on everything from labor and environmental standards to anti-corruption rules to access to medicine to tax enforcement.” Sanders similarly wants a “complete overhaul of our trade policies to increase American jobs, raise wages and lift up living standards in this country and throughout the world.” Another Democratic candidate, Pete Buttigieg, puts it bluntly, “Globalization is not going away. So we must insist on policies that ensure that working families in cities like mine can play a more appealing role in the story of globalization than the role of victim.”

Unfortunately, the focus on tariffs and trade agreements obscures a key promise of progressive foreign economic policy. Progressives can, and are already starting to, offer a larger strategy for securing key goals—one that turns globalization itself into a source of strength. As Warren argued in July, the United States enjoys “enormous leverage because America is the world’s most attractive market.” By conditioning access to that market, Washington can influence not only international negotiations over standards and the terms of trade but also the decisions made by firms themselves. Rather than employ such regulatory standards as forms of stealth protectionism—ones that allow corporations to extract rents from American consumers—progressives can use them to help craft a more just and sustainable global economy.