World update: October 12-13 2019

Stories from Syria, Tunisia, Ecuador, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

October 11, 1899: The Second Boer War begins. Though the Boer states had some initial success, the war ended in May 1902 with an overwhelming British victory and the collapse of both the South African Republic and the Orange Free State. Among the war’s many atrocities was the popularization of the concentration camp, which Britain used to house huge numbers of Boer civilians, many of whom died due to the brutally inhumane treatment to which they were subjected.

October 12, 1492: Christopher Columbus’s first expedition makes landfall in the Bahamas. Check out my Columbus and the Islamic World essay for a take on how Columbus’s “discovery” of the Americas affected much of Eurasia.

October 13, 1307: The Knights Templar order is purged

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Sunday was day five of Operation Peace Spring, and yes I know the situation in northeastern Syria changed perhaps momentously but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, let’s recount the additional human suffering Turkey’s invasion of northeastern Syria has caused since we left off on Friday. Casualty figures are still coming in mostly piecemeal, but the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says that at least 14 people—at least five of them civilians—were killed Sunday in a Turkish airstrike in or near the border town of Ras al-Ayn. The strike seems to have hit a convoy possibly moving into the city that included a number of foreign journalists, at least one of whom was killed. The Syrian Democratic Forces are suggesting the civilian death toll was significantly higher. The United Nations says that the incursion had displaced more than 130,000 people from the border region as of Sunday.

We’ve also reached the open war crimes stage of the invasion. Several videos have popped up online appearing to show Turkish-allied Syrian forces executing prisoners, mutilating bodies, and all manner of other charming behaviors. One video doesn’t show but hints at the murder of Hevrin Khalaf, a Kurdish politician and leader of the Future Party of Syria, as she was attempting to flee the region in a car. Khalaf was killed and the video suggests it was done in cold blood.

It’s worth pausing here for a moment and considering the makeup of the “Syrian National Army,” which is a Turkish rebrand of the “Free Syrian Army” that includes elements of the “National Liberation Front,” which itself is a rebrand for a whole bunch of tiny extremist groups looking to whitewash their images by joining what purports to be a legitimate political opposition group. Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Ahrar, Jaysh al-Islam, and elements of the now-dissolved Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement are just a few of the extremist jihadi groups reportedly participating in this operation as Turkish proxies. All have allegations of serious war crimes on their records. Many of these groups have also received US support at various times during the Syrian war, which not only reflects poorly on Washington but also means that US proxies are now fighting and killing other US proxies—and not for the first time in this conflict.

Speaking of extremists, there are reports that over 750 people affiliated with the Islamic State, mostly women and children, escaped an SDF displaced persons camp at Ayn Issa on Sunday amid Turkish shelling. The Syrian Observatory puts the figure closer to 100 while the Turkish government insists that the whole thing is Hashtag Fake News. This probably isn’t a significant jailbreak from a “welcome back IS perspective,” but as a sign of things to come it’s not great.

Turkish and Turkish-backed forces reportedly entered Ras al-Ayn, Tel Abyad, and Suluk over the weekend, and now appear to be in control of the centers of both towns as well as the segment of Syria’s major east-west M4 highway that runs between them. Ras al-Ayn and Tel Abyad are right on the border and were believed to be the Turks’ main targets during the first phase of their operation. Suluk is a bit south of the border but well within the confines of the “safe zone” Ankara says it wants to establish along the border. The SDF wasn’t expected to put up much of a fight in this area as it marshals for a bigger fight further south.

The nature of that bigger fight, or whether it will happen at all, is now in question because of Sunday’s big news, which is that the SDF, with Russian mediation, has cut a deal with the Syrian government. Damascus’s talk about refusing to negotiate with the SDF turns out to have indeed just been posturing. The initial terms of the deal have the SDF handing over the town of Manbij, a long-standing Turkish target, and the border town of Kobane to the Syrian army. Eventually the Syrian military would move back into all of northeastern Syria, or at least the parts not under Turkish control. The Syrian government does not appear to have made an concessions to the Kurds, meaning their attempt at establishing self-government in northeastern Syria can be considered kaput. In the end it would seem the Kurds had nothing to offer Damascus except surrender.

What happens next depends to some extent on Turkey. The Turkish government is not part of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s fan club, to say the least. Relations between Damascus and Ankara were improving prior to the war but that dissipated pretty quickly once Assad started killing people and would-be sultan Recep Tayyip Erdoğan saw a chance to enhance Turkey’s regional presence at Assad’s expense. That said, in a vacuum Erdoğan can probably live with a Syrian-Turkish border that’s controlled by the Syrian government, as opposed to the predominantly Kurdish SDF. The question is, can he live with it under current conditions? The Syrian government’s reinsertion into northeastern Syria makes it much more difficult for Turkey to justify depositing millions of Syrian refugees there, to say nothing of upsetting Erdoğan’s plans for self-aggrandizement.

There’s also the obvious question of Syria’s territorial integrity and how long Damascus can abide the Turkish army squatting on its territory—in northwestern Syria as well as in northeastern Syria. And what about Turkey’s proxies, many of whom were focused on overthrowing Assad before they let Ankara leverage them into attacking the Kurds instead. Are they going to just sit back and let the Syrian government reimpose itself across the border region again? At the root of all this is the question of whether Erdoğan covets northern Syria enough to risk ruining his relationship with Moscow and maybe even putting his army into a shooting war against the Russian military, one that Turkey would surely lose and one in which, at this point, it’s hard to imagine Ankara’s NATO allies rushing to its defense.

The immediate casualty of the SDF-Syrian accord is the United States military presence in northeastern Syria. The Pentagon announced Sunday that it will be evacuating Syria altogether. Undoubtedly that was part of the deal, because Damascus absolutely wants those US forces out of the country. Pentagon officials are saying that Donald Trump ordered the withdrawal on Saturday, but who knows? Even if he did, it was late. You didn’t have to be Sun Tzu to foresee that the SDF would have to prostrate itself before the Syrian government once the US green lit the Turkish invasion, and that was going to make it impossible for US forces to remain there. Plus, US forces already believe the Turks have deliberately fired on them once, and no matter what the SDF did it would have made no sense to leave them there to invite further incidents. The US withdrawal leaves the airspace in northeastern Syria to Turkey—or, at least, it would, except it now seems that airspace will be coming under Russia’s control instead.

TURKEY

Al-Monitor’s Kadri Gürsel says that two factors led Ankara finally to undertake its long-threatened offensive against the SDF. The first is the fear of a massive new influx of Syrian refugees from Idlib province and Ankara’s desire to create a place where it could deposit a significant portion of the Syrian refugees it’s already hosting. The other factor is more political:

For Erdogan, Operation Peace Spring offers also an opportunity to stop or contain the unraveling within his party. Ali Babacan, the AKP’s former economy czar who has already quit the party, is expected to create a new party and join the opposition ranks by the end of the year. Ahmet Davutoglu — the former premier and foreign minister who, together with Erdogan, designed and implemented the failed policies that spawned the grave “Syria crisis” that Turkey is experiencing today, both domestically and in its foreign policy — is gearing up to get ahead of Babacan and announce his own party in November. These political dynamics have already triggered a spate of resignations from the AKP, and the formal establishment of the new parties could further accelerate the unraveling. Hence, the government will seek to capitalize on Operation Peace Spring to curb the centrifugal forces pressuring the AKP since its defeats in the local polls. The intensive employment of a nationalist narrative, in which the operation is depicted as a struggle of “national survival” against terrorism and quitting the AKP is equated to treason, would not be a surprise. 

There are already omens that this state-of-emergency climate, nurtured through the operation, will be used to further suppress the opposition, free speech and media freedoms.

Ironically, Erdoğan could also get a political shot in the arm if the US levies sanctions against Turkey over the invasion. He’s always happiest when he can blame his own failures—Turkey’s weak economy, in this case—on foreign adversaries. That said, I’ll believe that Trump is going to sanction Erdoğan when I see it. He still hasn’t imposed sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S-400 air defense systems, even though he’s required by law to do so.

IRAQ

Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi on Saturday announced that he’s forming a commission to investigate allegations of abuses against protesters during the recent stretch of demonstrations in Baghdad and across southern Iraq. At least 108 people were killed during those protests, many by shady snipers whom the Iraqi government officially has officially disavowed. Abdul-Mahdi pretty much had no choice but to take this step after Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading religious authority, all but demanded it during his Friday sermon. When Sistani speaks, Iraqi prime ministers have to listen unless they’re not terribly worried about keeping their job.

EGYPT

At least nine people, all from the same family, were killed on Saturday when an artillery shell hit their truck in northern Sinai. It’s unclear who was responsible for the shell in question. Additionally, at least seven Egyptian security personnel were wounded in two separate bombing attacks, which have also gone unclaimed.

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi Aramco says it expects to repair all the damage caused by the September 14 missile/drone attack on two of its facilities by the end of November. The company, which is planning an IPO and therefore needs to project an image of stability to the public, has already restored its production to pre-attack levels (it wasn’t producing to full capacity before the attack) and these final repairs will restore its production capacity levels to full.

IRAN

Iranian officials, meanwhile, have denounced as “cowardly” an apparent missile attack on one of their oil tankers off the Red Sea coast of Saudi Arabia on Friday. Nobody has claimed responsibility for the attack. The obvious suspect would be Saudi Arabia, but Iranian officials have said that the attack didn’t originate on Saudi soil. The Saudis say they received a distress call from the vessel after the incident but that it then shut off its transponder before the Saudis could send assistance.

ASIA

GEORGIA

The Russian government is apparently using its sway in the self-proclaimed Georgian republic of Abkhazia to give itself a clever way to get around a United Nations ban against countries hosting North Korean expat workers. Rather than send all of its North Korean expats back to North Korea, as it’s supposed to do, Moscow has sent a few hundred of them to Abkhazia, which as an unrecognized breakaway “state” is somewhat removed from the obligations of international law. Those workers are free to continue sending remittances home, which the Russians are hoping will buy them some extra influence in Pyongyang.

AFGHANISTAN

An Afghan police officer defected to the Taliban in Balkh province on Saturday, but not before killing three of his fellow officers and absconding with their weapons.

KASHMIR

A grenade attack wounded five people in Srinagar on Saturday. Sporadic incidents like this have made it clear that tensions over the Indian government’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy remain high even if India’s unprecedented security crackdown has largely kept them under wraps so far. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi insists that Kashmir will calm down within four months. I don’t know if he means that as a promise or a threat, but I guess we’ll see.

CHINA

Thousands of people demonstrated in Kowloon on Saturday, but things seem to have remained mostly peaceful. There were reports of attacks on two metro stations, one of which included a molotov cocktail, but there were no reports of injuries. Sunday’s protests, on the other hand, were considerably more violent:

Peaceful rallies descended into chaos on Sunday as activists and police clashed in chaotic scenes across the Asian financial hub. In one of the worst incidents, an officer was slashed in the neck by a protester and taken to hospital.

Demonstrators in the New Territories district of Tseung Kwan O attacked two plainclothes officers who they hit repeatedly on the head with hard objects, police said. The officers were taken to hospital with head injuries.

Protesters threw more than 20 petrol bombs at a police station in the gritty working class district of Mong Kok across the harbor in Kowloon, and vandalized metro stations as well as mainland Chinese businesses or those deemed pro-Beijing.

Demonstrators again targeted railway operator MTR Corp, which they accuse of colluding with the government and police by shutting some services early.

Activists are planning a demonstration near the headquarters of the Hong Kong government on Monday around midday.

AFRICA

TUNISIA

Results aren’t available yet, but exit polling suggests that lawyer Kaïs Saïed has won an overwhelming victory in Sunday’s Tunisian presidential runoff. The two available exit polls have Saïed at somewhere between 72 and 77 percent of the vote. Runner-up Nabil Karoui had been in jail on corruption charges since August until he was released on Wednesday, which may well have impacted the result. Turnout is estimated to have been around 57 percent. Saïed centered his campaign on a strong anti-corruption message, in contrast to Karoui’s populism.

ALGERIA

The Algerian parliament is considering a measure that would open the country’s energy sector up to higher levels of foreign investment, which caused hundreds of people to protest in Algiers on Sunday. It’s not necessarily that they oppose the substance of the measure, but they reject the notion that Algeria’s current interim government should have the authority to introduce and/or approve new legislation.

BURKINA FASO

Gunmen attacked a mosque in northern Burkina Faso on Saturday and killed at least 16 people. No group has claimed responsibility but both al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates are active in that region.

SOMALIA

Three mortar shells hit Mogadishu’s airport on Sunday, injuring at least six people. Al-Shabab is presumably responsible but hasn’t claimed credit yet.

KENYA

A likely al-Shabab bomb killed at least ten Kenyan police officers when it struck their vehicle near the Somali border on Saturday. The group also hasn’t claimed credit for this attack.

EUROPE

POLAND

Exit polling also suggests that Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has emerged victorious in Sunday’s parliamentary election, with 43.6 percent of the vote and a sole majority in the Sejm. The second place Civic Coalition came in well behind at 27.4 percent. PiS has done yeoman’s work in demonizing LGBT people and stripping Poland’s judiciary of any semblance of independence, and it appears Polish voters are pleased with the results.

HUNGARY

Hungary’s now-united opposition scored a big win on Sunday, when challenger Gergely Karacsony defeated Fidesz party incumbent Istvan Tarlos for the Budapest mayoralty. The win doesn’t do anything to alter the balance of power in Hungary and probably isn’t that big a surprise, given that last year’s parliamentary election showed that Fidesz doesn’t have much support in Budapest (it took a little over 38 percent of the total vote there, though because of the divided opposition that was a plurality of the vote in the city).

AMERICAS

ECUADOR

After previously seeming cool to the idea, Ecuadorean indigenous leaders are now meeting with the government of President Lenín Moreno in an effort to end the protests that have rocked the cities of Quito and Guayaquil for nearly two weeks. The breakthrough appeared to come Saturday, when Moreno said that he would “study” the effects of the fuel subsidy cut that started the unrest earlier this month. Moreno had been refusing to budge on that decision, which is one of the centerpieces of his International Monetary Fund-mandated austerity agenda. The talks are being overseen by the Catholic Church and the United Nations. Despite the talks, there was intense fighting between protesters and Ecuadorean police in Quito on Sunday. Moreno continues to blame the demonstrations and violence on his predecessor, Rafael Correa.

MEXICO

Mexican military police turned around a 2000 person migrant caravan that had set out from southern Mexico for the US border on Saturday. The Mexican government is taking a much more active role in blocking migrants from reaching the southern US border in order to appease Donald Trump’s xenophobia and thereby avoid US economic penalties.

UNITED STATES

Axios says it has the “behind the scenes” scoop on how what appears to be the dumbest game of chicken in human history ended with Turkey invading northeastern Syria even though it’s not entirely clear that’s what the Turks wanted:

The big picture: Trump would tell Erdoğan that if he wanted to invade Syria he would have to own whatever mess ensued, according to these sources. Erdoğan would have to take care of ISIS and manage international condemnation, trouble from Capitol Hill, and the quagmire with the Kurds. And when Trump put it in such stark terms to Erdoğan, the Turkish leader would demur. Until last Sunday, that is, when he told Trump he was moving ahead with the invasion of northern Syria.

  • This time, Erdoğan called Trump's bluff, having waited for international forces to wipe out the ISIS caliphate.

  • Erdoğan's decision — which the White House cleared the way for in its Sunday night announcement, alienating and blindsiding key allies including Republican lawmakers and the Christian right — has plunged the Middle East and Trump's political standing in Washington into crisis.

Sources in Turkey have indicated that while Erdoğan was talking big, he thought Trump would restrain him, a U.S. official familiar with the details told Axios' Margaret Talev.

  • For example, Erdoğan did not expect — or want — a 30-km-deep (18-mile) buffer; that was assumed to be a negotiation aimed at getting something smaller.

  • Now Erdoğan may be in over his head and facing global condemnation and sanctions, but he got so far extended politically inside Turkey that he has had little choice but to go forward, the official said.

Really, just two intellectual titans playing 87 dimensional chess while the rest of the world watches and, occasionally, has to dodge some Turkish artillery fire. Each one calling a bluff that the other one was too dumb to have actually made. There’s obviously much more to the situation in Syria than sheer stupidity, but never discount the role that it’s playing, anywhere, especially with Donald Trump in office.

You’re really hearing it more and more (White House photo via Flickr)

Along those same lines, at his Substack production, the Nonzero Newsletter, Robert Wright argues that the US foreign policy establishment’s sustained contempt for the idea of international law helped create the conditions for what’s happening in Syria right now. That, he writes, is why the foreign policy community has barely noted the obvious fact that Turkey’s invasion is, if nothing else, completely illegal:

The criticism that went unvoiced is simple: The Turkish incursion that Trump greenlighted is illegal. It violates international law, which prohibits transborder aggression.

If you join the foreign policy establishment in not considering this worth much discussion, I understand. After all, precisely because of the Blob’s longstanding silence on international law, “violates international law” sounds like something abstract and technical, with less emotional force than, say, “committed a felony.”

My own view is that if this doesn’t change—if international law doesn’t come to command the kind of respect that domestic law does—the wellbeing and maybe even the survival of our species will be at risk. The full version of my argument to this effect takes a while to unfold (I spent hundreds of pages on it in my book Nonzero). But you can get at least some sense for why I’m an international law aficionado by reflecting on this question: Why is it that pretty much no one in the entire foreign policy establishment—not liberal internationalists, not neoconservatives, not unilateralist Boltonesque warmongers—complains about Trump’s having just abetted an egregious violation of international law?

Here’s one plausible answer: Because pretty much all of them have themselves advocated egregious violations of international law, and many of them have done so prolifically. Indeed (sorry about the continued italics, but I’m pretty worked up at this point) the Blob’s persistent disregard for international law is one reason Syria is such a mess in the first place.