World update: October 17 2019

Stories from Syria, Qatar, the United Kingdom, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

October 16, 1934: The Chinese Red Army begins the “Long March,” a series of maneuvers that would, over the next year and over some 9000 kilometers, see his forces evade the Kuomintang army of Chiang Kai-shek. Though the Red Army lost a substantial portion of its forces, the Long March preserved the Chinese Communist Party and enabled Mao Zedong’s rise to undisputed leadership within it, in addition to being a massive public relations success.

October 16, 1964: China tests its first nuclear bomb. How nice for them.

October 17, 1437: The Battle of Tangier ends

October 17, 1973: OPEC imposes an oil embargo against countries that were supporting Israeli in the Yom Kippur War—Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The embargo immediate caused a spike in oil prices and contributed to shortages that led to gasoline rationing in the targeted countries. It notably did not cause any of the targeted countries to change policy.

A typical scene during the ensuing gas crisis (David Falconer via Wikimedia Commons)

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

After being sent by Donald Trump to clean up the mess Trump himself created in northeastern Syria, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Thursday and…they did it. Using their finely honed diplomatic skills to cajole and persuade the strong-willed Turkish leader, Pence and Pompeo finally convinced him to call a very temporary halt to Operation Peace Spring, and all they had to do was give Erdoğan pretty much everything he wanted:

Vice President Mike Pence on Thursday said Turkey had agreed to suspend its military operations in northeast Syria for five days while Syrian Kurdish fighters left the area, immediately raising questions about whether the agreement was a diplomatic breakthrough or a capitulation to the Turkish government.

Emerging from close to five hours of deliberations with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Mr. Pence said that the American delegation had achieved the cease-fire it had hoped to broker in the hastily organized trip to Ankara, the Turkish capital. Hailing the agreement as a diplomatic victory for President Trump, he called it a ‘‘solution we believe will save lives.”

The agreement “ends the violence — which is what President Trump sent us here to do,” Mr. Pence said at a news conference at the ambassador’s residence.

But Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, immediately countered that the agreement was not a cease-fire at all, but merely a “pause for our operation.” He added that “as a result of our president’s skillful leadership, we got what we wanted.”

Yes, Çavuşoğlu couldn’t even be bothered to wait until Pence and Pompeo had left the country to start bragging about how badly his boss had just rolled them. And he’s right, in that this isn’t a ceasefire, it’s a surrender agreement. The United States has surrendered to Turkey on behalf of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Saving them the trouble, I guess. The SDF has fortunately agreed to abide by this surrender, but one wonders what would have happened had they not. In return for accepting their surrender and agreeing not to shoot retreating SDF fighters in the back, Ankara gets relief from the relatively minor economic sanctions that Trump imposed on Turkey earlier this week (though Congress may still have something to say about that), and it gets a de facto US stamp of approval on its military offensive.

Even as a surrender agreement it’s far from clear that this thing Pence and Pompeo negotiated can hold up. The immediate effect will be to leave the Turks in control of a 20 mile deep “safe zone” along the border, which is what they’ve been after. But the Turks have also expressed longer-term plans to push further south, plans that this deal doesn’t really forestall. What could forestall those plans is the deal the SDF has reached with the Syrian government, which now leaves Damascus and its Russian patron as the controlling powers in northeastern Syria. But that’s also a complication, since Syria (and Russia) want control over the border and have already started to move military assets toward border towns like Kobani that lie within the 20 mile limit but are outside the area that Turkey has assumed for its “safe zone.” Ankara says the Russians have promised to move the SDF away from the border and that seems like an arrangement with which the Turks can live.

For now, at least, it seems the fighting in northeastern Syria is over. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says it’s left 224 SDF soldiers, 183 Turkish proxies, and 72 civilians dead. The SOHR says it cannot confirm Kurdish accusations that Turkish forces have been using napalm and white phosphorus weapons—accusations that Turkey denies—but it does say there have been a number of burn cases around Ras al-Ayn over the past couple of days, and photographic evidence appears to show that white phosphorus is indeed one of the causes.

TURKEY

Hey, you know that “don’t be a jerk!” letter Trump sent to Erdoğan last week? Erdoğan apparently tossed it in the garbage. Just thought you’d like to know.

IRAQ

The Trump administration has given Iraq another 120 day waiver to divest itself of Iranian electricity. And because Iraq really has few other options for electricity at this point, the administration will do the same thing 120 days from now, and 120 days after that, and so on. The Iraqi government isn’t going to accept a national blackout just to fulfill Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, so there’s really nothing the US can do to stop Baghdad from continuing to buy Iranian power. All it can do is keep issuing these waivers to maintain a fiction that the Iraqis are only buying Iranian electricity with Washington’s permission.

Reuters claims that “two Iraqi security officials” have told its reporters that the snipers who attacked protesters in Baghdad and cities in southern Iraq earlier this month came from pro-Iranian Popular Mobilization militias. More than 100 Iraqis were killed during those protests, many of them by unknown snipers who appeared to be working with Iraqi security forces but have been disavowed by the Iraqi government. The shooters do not appear to have directly coordinated with the security forces but were instead operating under the direction of their own militia leaders.

LEBANON

Dozens of people demonstrated in downtown Beirut on Thursday, while many more blocked roads across Lebanon, to protest the tax hikes that Lebanese politicians are considering for their 2020 budget. Lebanon has a genuinely troubling debt load but the Lebanese people are understandably less than enthusiastic about swallowing austerity measures to try to bring that debt down.

QATAR

If you’re looking for a preview of things to come, consider Qatar, a country rendered almost uninhabitable by climate change:

Over the past three decades, temperature increases in Qatar have been accelerating. That’s because of the uneven nature of climate change as well as the surge in construction that drives local climate conditions around Doha, the capital. The temperatures are also rising because Qatar, slightly smaller than Connecticut, juts out from Saudi Arabia into the rapidly warming waters of the Persian Gulf.

In a July 2010 heat wave, the temperature hit an all-time high of 50.4 degrees Celsius.

“Qatar is one of the fastest warming areas of the world, at least outside of the Arctic,” said Zeke Hausfather, a climate data scientist at Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit temperature analysis group. “Changes there can help give us a sense of what the rest of the world can expect if we do not take action to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions.”

The Qataris, thanks to their vast fossil fuel-generated wealth, are able to mitigate the effects enough to keep people alive, but that requires literally air conditioning heavily trafficked outdoor areas. The energy required to sustain that kind of effort then of course contributes to further climate change. And other places experiencing major temperature increases don’t have Qatar’s disposable cash lying around.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The Afghan government is supposed to release preliminary results from last month’s presidential election on Saturday. It will not, and not for at least another week beyond that. Apparently the issue is slow data entry, but the longer this draws out the less legitimate the results could look when they finally are released.

PAKISTAN

The Pakistani government, meanwhile, is expecting not to be placed on the Financial Action Task Force’s blacklist when the FATF meets on Friday. Islamabad is expecting allies like Turkey, Malaysia, and especially China to make sure that doesn’t happen. The Chinese government has allegedly promised the Pakistanis they won’t be blacklisted. However, Pakistan will remain on the FATF’s “gray” list, and will unless and until it conclusively demonstrates that it’s no longer supporting terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammad.

CHINA

Satellite imagery shows that not only is China making substantial progress in constructing its first planned full-size “Type 002” aircraft carrier, but it’s transformed the Jiangnan shipyard into what looks like a specialized facility for building future carriers and other large ships more rapidly:

“We can see slow but steady progress on the hull, but I think the really surprising thing these images show is the extensive infrastructure buildup that has gone on simultaneously,” said CSIS analyst Matthew Funaiole.

“It is hard to imagine all this is being done for just one ship,” he added. “This looks more like a specialized space for carriers and or other larger vessels.”

Singapore-based military analyst Collin Koh said the modern, purpose-built facility on a sparsely populated island in the Yangtze may provide better security than the congested shipyards of Dalian in northern China. It could also help deepen co-operation between commercial and military shipbuilders.

AFRICA

LIBYA

Unknown gunmen attacked a family on a road south of Tripoli on Wednesday evening, killing two women and three children. It’s unclear who carried out the attack or why, but the “Libyan National Army” is blaming militias affiliated with the Libyan government. The LNA is still engaged in an offensive to capture Tripoli and at the very least it’s likely that the chaos caused by that attack is adding to an already fairly lawless environment outside the Libyan capital.

TUNISIA

While constitutional law professor Kaïs Saïed is definitely going to be Tunisia’s next president, it’s an open question what kind of parliament he’s going to have to deal with. Tunisia’s parliamentary election earlier this month produced a totally inconclusive result, with the largest party, Ennahda, only controlling 52 seats—less than halfway to a majority. Further complicating things, Ennahda has already ruled out forming a coalition with second place party Heart of Tunis, which controls 38 seats, and the feeling there seems to be mutual. By law Ennahda must be given first crack at forming a government, but if it can’t do so within a month (two months if the president decides to extend its mandate) then another party can be given a chance, or the president can scrap the whole thing and call for another election.

MOZAMBIQUE

On the surface, at least, the electoral picture seems much clearer in Mozambique, where Tuesday’s general election appears to have produced a landslide for the ruling FRELIMO party. But that victory may be too lopsided to be true. Incumbent President Filipe Nyusi took 71 percent of the vote in preliminary results, while the party looks set to retain a large majority in parliament and to win most of the country’s 10 governorships, even in areas thought to be opposition strongholds. There are several allegations of voting irregularities, however, which could mar FRELIMO’s victory (indeed, the extent of that victory is itself kind of a red flag) and deepen its widening split with opposition party and former rebel group RENAMO.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

The Russian government says it’s making a formal protest over the apparent attempt by three US diplomats to visit the site of an August nuclear accident in northern Russia. Russian authorities pulled the three off of a train that was heading into an area where what was probably a nuclear powered Russian cruise missile exploded during testing, leading to the deaths of five people and a spike in local radiation levels.

UKRAINE

In today’s impeachment update, Trump chief of staff Mick Mulvaney told reporters in a press conference on Thursday that his boss definitely did withhold military aid to Ukraine in order to force the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden and also to investigate possible Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. The latter is a red herring Trump has dreamed up to distract from the Russian interference that won him the presidency. Mulvaney explicitly admitted this abuse of office and then explained that this is just how foreign policy is done. Later he said he’d been taken out of context, even though he’d said everything in front of a bunch of cameras and his denial directly contradicted his earlier remarks. Anyway, it’s probably fine.

SWITZERLAND

Switzerland is holding a parliamentary election on Sunday, and polling suggests that climate change has replaced immigration as the main concern of Swiss voters. That should translate into gains for environmental parties like the Greens, who could nab their first ever bit of the country’s executive Federal Council if they can agree on a coalition with the centrist Green Liberals. That said, the anti-immigrant Swiss People's Party is expected to remain the largest party in the lower house of parliament. The centrist Christian Democratic People’s Party and Radical-Liberal Party are expected to retain their positions as the largest parties in the upper house.

SPAIN

Thursday saw a fourth straight day of violent protests in Barcelona over the sentencing of nine pro-independence activists earlier this week. The activists received prison terms between nine and 13 years for their roles in Catalonia’s 2017 independence referendum. Demonstrators reportedly set fires and threw eggs at riot police. Friday’s protests are expected to be larger and may be accompanied by a general strike.

Meanwhile, more polling has emerged with bad news for Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his Socialist Party. The survey from pollster Sigma Dos has the Socialists winning 122 seats in next month’s snap election, down one from the 123 they won in April. That would obviously leave Sánchez just as dependent on other parties to support him as he was after the earlier vote. It was his failure to negotiate either a coalition or support agreement that has resulted in this snap election. It remains to be seen how events in Barcelona will affect the race—most Spanish voters seem to appreciate the hardline approach that right-wing parties generally take to Catalan nationalism, and if Sánchez can’t bring these protests under control he may start to lose support to parties that are more likely to crack down harshly on the protesters.

UNITED KINGDOM

Boris Johnson has his Brexit agreement, but it very much remains to be seen whether he can get it through parliament. The leaders of the 27 remaining European Union member states on Thursday unanimously approved the agreement Johnson negotiated with EU leaders earlier this week, one that manages to be both a bigger concession (on Northern Ireland) to the EU and a harder Brexit (economically) than the agreement that cost Theresa May her premiership. Still, it’s an agreement, which probably means it’s better than leaving the EU with no agreement. For all his bluster about leaving the EU without a deal, Johnson appears to have caved in a very big way to avoid that outcome.

Indeed, he may have caved too much to win a parliamentary vote. The Democratic Unionist Party has already said it will not support the agreement, which leaves Northern Ireland in de facto economic union with the EU even as the rest of the UK withdraws. Johnson’s Conservative Party has nowhere near a majority at this point, and without the DUP’s ten votes he’ll have to cobble together around 65 votes from a pool of possible supporters that isn’t much larger than 65—meaning he doesn’t have much room for error. And the various groups that might support Johnson’s plan don’t really cohere in many ways. Fewer than 10 Labour MPs are reportedly willing to back the measure, which by itself could mean Johnson is out of luck.

Johnson will pitch his agreement to parliament in an emergency session on Saturday. The EU on Thursday refused to rule out extending the Brexit deadline, which Johnson requested in hopes that it would force MPs to back his deal to avoid a no-deal scenario. If he loses the vote, however, he probably won’t mind all that much. No matter what happens in that scenario, whether the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal or is forced to accept a deadline extension, Johnson can claim he did the best he could and was thwarted by his uncooperative opponents. That gives him a clear issue to take into a forthcoming snap election campaign. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, by the by, was planning to push for a second Brexit referendum on Saturday, but now may not as it looks like he won’t have the votes for it.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has precipitated a schism in his own Social Liberal Party (PSL), after trying to engineer his son Eduardo’s elevation as the party’s chief whip in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies. Supporters of party founder Luciano Bivar, as Eduardo’s would-be promotion would have displaced a Bivar loyalist. Bivar is under a cloud of campaign finance corruption in an investigation that Bolsonaro is apparently encouraging because it offers him a chance either to oust Bivar and take full control of the party or to split with Bivar and take a significant portion of the PSL’s public campaign funding with him either to form a brand new party or to merge with some other right-wing party.

ECUADOR

Now that President Lenín Moreno has backed off of his plan to cut fuel subsidies in the face of heavy popular resistance, it remains to be seen how he intends to slash government spending to comply with the International Monetary Fund’s austerity demands. Moreno will likely try to resuscitate some version of the subsidy cut, albeit one that doesn’t come down quite so hard on indigenous Ecuadoreans and the lower economic classes. He’s also likely to explore tax increases and other spending cuts, though there too he’s going to have to be sensitive to changes that disproportionately impact people at the bottom of the economic ladder.

VENEZUELA

The Venezuelan government on Thursday won a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. You’ll hear this bandied about over the next few days by people who hate the UN as proof that the institution is totally broken. Please ignore those people. The UN Human Rights Council is routinely filled with countries that have serious blemishes on their human rights record not because the UN is broken, but because it’s almost impossible to find a country that actually cares about human rights when push comes to shove. Among the council’s current members are human rights luminaries Brazil, Egypt, Eritrea, Hungary, India, Italy, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Kingdom. The main objections to Venezuela’s placement on the council will come from the United States, a country with a horrific human rights record that quit the council last year in order to protest its criticisms of Israel’s horrific human rights record. The problem isn’t the UN, it’s all the people running the UN’s member states.

MEXICO

Mexico’s Sinaloa state was the scene of a gunfight between Mexican security forces and Sinaloa cartel members on Thursday, after Mexican authorities in the town of Culiacan located Ovidio Guzmán López, a son of the infamous Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán who is under indictment in the US. Gunmen quickly showed up in Culiacan, firing machine guns and blocking the streets with burning vehicles. Mexican authorities wound up releasing Guzmán to avoid further violence.

UNITED STATES

Donald Trump has decided that when he hosts next year’s G7 summit he’ll do so at the Doral golf club in Miami. Which Trump owns. Wow, what a wild coincidence. Mick Mulvaney insists that Doral is the absolute best facility in the entire United States to host the summit, and I’m sure he must be telling the truth because otherwise this would just be Trump siphoning a huge federal government contract right into his own pockets for purely corrupt reasons. Obviously that can’t be it.

Finally, Lindsay Koshgarian of the Institute for Policy Studies says that the path toward financing Medicare for All (the real thing, not whatever “Medicare* for** All***” nonsense the Third Way folks are offering this week), starts at the Pentagon:

Over 18 years, the United States has spent $4.9 trillion on wars, with only more intractable violence in the Middle East and beyond to show for it. That’s nearly the $300 billion per year over the current system that is estimated to cover Medicare for All (though estimates vary).

While we can’t un-spend that $4.9 trillion, imagine if we could make different choices for the next 20 years.

We’ve identified more than $300 billion in annual military savings alone that we could better invest in priorities like Medicare for All, working with a national grassroots movement called Poor People’s Campaign.

Cutting military spending this way presents its own tremendous obstacles. Yet the exercise, however aspirational it may seem, also shows how ambitious proposals are still within reach — if we make different choices.