World update: October 19-20 2019

Stories from Lebanon, the United Kingdom, Chile, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

October 18, 1009: Fatimid Caliph al-Hakim destroys the Church of the Holy Sepulchre

October 18, 1912: The Italo-Turkish War ends with a decisive Italian victory. The war not only brought Libya under Italian control—though that control didn’t extend very far inland for several years after—it also demonstrated the Ottoman Empire’s weakness and encouraged Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia to form an alliance (the Balkan League) and go to war with the Ottomans. The First Balkan War led to a Second Balkan War when the league broke up, and that led right into World War I.

October 18, 1991: Azerbaijan declares its independence from the Soviet Union.

October 19, 1469: Prince Ferdinand of Aragon marries Infanta Isabella of Castile in the marriage that would eventually unite the two kingdoms and lead to the formation of Spain.

October 19, 1781: The Siege of Yorktown ends with a French-American victory over the British army under Lord Charles Cornwallis. The surrender of an entire British army marked the effective end of the American Revolution.

October 20, 1448: The Second Battle of Kosovo ends

October 20, 1962: Chinese forces attack India in two disputed border regions—Ladakh in the west and the Tibet-Arunachal Pradesh region in the east, beginning the month-long Sino-Indian War. The conflict ended with a decisive Chinese victory that stabilized the still poorly defined Chinese-Indian border on Beijing’s terms.

October 20, 2011: Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi is captured by rebels west of the city of Sirte and summarily executed.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Things in northeastern Syria actually seem to have calmed down a bit over the weekend, so that’s something. One Turkish soldier was reportedly killed by Kurdish fighters near Tel Abyad on Sunday, but the Syrian Democratic Forces militia withdrew its fighters from Ras al-Ayn, the border town that had heretofore been the biggest flashpoint in Turkey’s “Operation Peace Spring.” Along with them went many of the town’s Kurdish inhabitants, probably worried about what kind of treatment they could expect at the hands of Turkey’s Arab proxies, many of whom tend to be of the extremist jihadi persuasion and who have already been accused of multiple atrocities in just the few days since “Peace Spring” began. SDF leaders say once the evacuation of Ras al-Ayn is complete they’ll withdraw completely from the “safe zone” Turkey plans on creating along the border.

Questions remain about just how large that “safe zone” is supposed to be. The United States, which negotiated the temporary ceasefire/surrender agreement currently in place in northeastern Syria on the SDF’s behalf, says that Turkey is only occupying a strip of border territory between Tel Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, which is around 120 kilometers long. But Ankara seems to think it will control all the territory along the Syrian-Turkish border, even in places where the Syrian military has already deployed in the wake of the SDF’s agreement with Damascus. To that end, the Turks say they’re negotiating with Russia on the removal of all Kurdish fighters from Manbij and Kobani, two such places.

Speaking of Kobani, a “convoy” of US forces left that town over the weekend after calling in airstrikes on its own base. It’s unclear how many US forces are leaving at this point, but it’s believed to account for “most” of the 1000 or so (acknowledged) US personnel in northeastern Syria. The full withdrawal may take some time, after which those US forces will be redeployed to Iraq.

Or, you know, not. According to the New York Times, Trump has now decided to leave 200 special forced soldiers in Syria, “to combat the Islamic State and block the advance of Syrian government and Russian forces into the region’s coveted oil fields.” Like a bad case of deja vu, Trump appears to be repeating the events of last December, when he abruptly announced (after a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, that he was ordering the withdrawal of all 2000 US forces in eastern Syria. After facing heavy criticism, Trump quietly decided to only withdraw half of those forces and leave the other 1000 in place to, uh, combat IS and undermine the plans of the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian backers. Shuffle around the numbers and the same thing is happening all over again. Only this time he’s leaving 200 US soldiers in a much less friendly environment now that the SDF has already cut a deal with the Syrian government. Now those 200 soldiers will be surrounded by hostile forces, and if anything happens to them it will draw the United States back into Syria in a much bigger way than it was even back in December. This is the kind of thing that can happen when you elect a president who claims not to like overseas military deployments but also has no idea what he’s doing.

Whether these forces stay in Syria or go to Iraq, it still makes a mockery of Trump’s claim that this has all been about reducing America’s footprint in the Middle East. In reality Trump has increased the overall number of US soldiers on deployment in the region, though in his defense most of the increase involves units he’s hired out as mercenaries to protect Saudi Arabia at that kingdom’s expense.

LEBANON

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri announced on Sunday that his government has agreed on a package of reforms that he seems to think will help improve the Lebanese economy and appease the tens of thousands of people who have taken to the streets over the past several days to demand his resignation. The package includes a 50 percent cut in salaries for all current and former presidents, cabinet ministers, and members of parliament, which does have some populist appeal in a country where corruption is one of the main complaints. It also mandates that the Lebanese central bank and other financial institutions “contribute” $3.3 billion to cut Lebanon’s 2020 budget deficit to almost zero. I’m not entirely sure how that’s supposed to work. In addition, the reforms will privatize Lebanon’s telecommunications sector—I’m certain that Hariri’s past (?) business interests in the telecom field are purely coincidental—and make some unspecified changes to its electricity sector.

If you’re left wondering how any of these reforms are supposed to help ordinary people, well, you’re not the only one. They are, however, music to the International Monetary Fund’s ears, what with all the talk of privatization and budget cuts. Lebanese leaders ruled out tax increases for fear of further enraging the public, or else they could’ve hit the IMF trifecta. Hariri seems to think that making these changes will unlock around $11 billion in economic aid from the West, and certainly there will be foreign firms interested in getting a piece of Lebanon’s telecom market.

The public unrest that these reforms is meant to address cost Hariri one of his coalition partners on Saturday, when the Maronite Lebanese Forces party announced that enough was enough. Interestingly, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah—who in some respects is emerging as Hariri’s main political rival—delivered a televised speech on Saturday in which he expressed support for the protesters and their demands but also rejected calls for Hariri’s government to resign. And to be honest he made a pretty good point, which is that even if Hariri and his cabinet were to quit little would change, since the same parties would simply have to come together and negotiate a new coalition arrangement. Indeed, as ineffective as he’s been Hariri is part of the tenuous thread that’s currently holding Lebanese politics together, and if he goes there’s no guarantee that the country’s political dysfunction won’t get even worse.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has begun making preparations for new elections, which would be a real novelty considering that the PA hasn’t held an election since 2006, when Hamas won the parliamentary election and Abbas decided that maybe this whole voting thing wasn’t a good idea after all. It’s been so long since the PA held an election that the Palestinian Constitutional Court dissolved the Palestinian parliament altogether, which is a problem not just for the obvious reason but also because the chairman of the legislature is supposed to be first in the line of succession if something happens to the nearly 84 year old Abbas. Polling suggests that a parliamentary vote would produce a divided legislature and a presidential vote (which, notably, Abbas hasn’t talked about holding) would be pretty close between Abbas and Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. The chances of any election happening seem slim given the deep Hamas-Fatah schism.

EGYPT

Shelling in the northern Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid reportedly killed at least four civilians and wounded 12 more people on Saturday. Sinai insurgents were presumably responsible, though if Egyptian security forces had accidentally bombed a couple of civilian homes it’s unlikely they would admit to it.

At Jacobin, Egyptian journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy suggests that although recent protests against him have mostly petered out, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is losing popularity while the opposition to his rule is gaining strength. But he also notes that the opposition has a long struggle ahead, given how thoroughly Sisi has suppressed dissent:

More importantly, in order for spontaneous protests to continue, organization is needed to sustain such a movement in the streets, to coordinate it and articulate a political alternative. Spontaneity does not last for long and is not enough to overthrow a regime. In effect, since the military coup in July 2013 Sisi has managed to destroy all organizational structures that could play that role: political parties, independent unions, youth organizations, and so on. And it was no coincidence that following the mass arrests of protesters, the security services immediately shifted their attention to veteran activists and leading members of political parties who were still at large, even when they had played no role in the mobilization.

IRAN

Iranian officials say they will activate the secondary circuit on their “heavy water” nuclear reactor at Arak within the next two weeks. Before you start reading breathless takes about another Iranian nuclear deal violation, note that this in fact appears to be part of the process of redesigning the Arak reactor in accordance with that deal. “Heavy water” reactors like Arak, which use water with a higher than normal percentage of deuterium oxide as their coolant, tend to produce more plutonium waste than “light water” (normal water, basically) facilities. This makes them a proliferation risk, though that plutonium then has to be reprocessed for weapons use in a separate facility that Iran hasn’t built. The 2015 nuclear deal called for Arak to be redesigned with international assistance, so that it produces considerably less plutonium waste than it would have under its original design.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The death toll from Friday’s devastating attack on a mosque in Nangarhar province—which now seems definitely to have been a suicide bombing—is at least 73, and the impact runs much deeper than that:

Just a few hundred residents remain in Jawdara, a small village in eastern Afghanistan struggling to survive after Islamic State militants cut off their water supply early this year. With only 70 families hanging on, the cost to this tiny, trapped community was grievous when 73 lives — basically the men of each family — were torn away in an instant.

“The village is ruined,” said Mawlawi Sadaqat, a local religious leader who led prayers as the bodies were buried. “Each house is left with orphans.”

Jawdara has apparently been targeted repeatedly by the Islamic State, and residents are pretty sure it was IS that carried out this attack.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper(anto) visited Afghanistan on Sunday to deliver the message that the Trump administration hasn’t abandoned its pursuit of a peace deal with the Taliban. Talks famously collapsed last month when Donald Trump invited, then abruptly uninvited Taliban negotiators to Camp David, but the two sides had reportedly reached a deal and one would think it wouldn’t be that big a lift to resurrect it.

KASHMIR

According to Indian and Pakistani officials, a cross-border exchange of artillery fire on Saturday killed at least seven people in total—two Indian soldiers, one Indian Kashmiri civilian, one Pakistani soldier, and three Pakistani civilians. Indian and Pakistani border guards frequently fire at one another but it rarely escalates to a full on artillery exchange. Each side naturally accused the other of starting it, with the Indians accusing Pakistan of firing to cover an infiltration of militants into Indian Kashmir and the Pakistanis accusing Indian soldiers of having gone “berserk” and deliberately attacking civilians.

BANGLADESH

Bangladeshi police apparently killed at least four protesters in the town of Borhanuddin on Sunday after hundreds of people gathered over the weekend to demand the arrest of a Hindu man who allegedly defamed the Prophet Muhammad on Facebook. Demonstrators reportedly began attacking police, who then retaliated. The account-holder seems to be claiming that he was hacked. Anyway, Facebook sure does enrich our lives, doesn’t it? I can see why we definitely shouldn’t regulate the hell out of it.

CHINA

Protests in Hong Kong turned violent on Sunday evening after a very large (estimated at 350,000) crowd gathered earlier in the day to reiterate their demands for political reform. The protest itself was illegal since the Hong Kong government had refused to grant organizers a permit, but it seems to have proceeded mostly peacefully apart from some property damage. By evening, though, a group of protesters began throwing molotov cocktails at police while the police broke out the tear gas. At one point, police fired a water cannon at the Kowloon Mosque, the largest mosque in the city, drawing complaints from worshipers.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Sudan’s interim government has appointed a commission charged with investigating possible crimes stemming from a brutal June attack on protesters by Sudanese security forces. The military government at the time acknowledged 87 deaths in that massacre, but the actual death toll is believed to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 130. Determining how many people were killed will be one of the commission’s tasks, in addition to determining who ordered and carried out the attack. Opposition groups have been asserting that the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces were responsible.

MALI

The Malian army says that its forces killed 50 unspecified “militants” in an unspecified operation that took place somewhere at some time recently that freed dozens of soldiers who had been captured in two militant attacks last month. They were a little light on the details, is what I’m saying. They apparently recovered 36 of the 60 soldiers who went missing after raids on two military bases on September 30. Meanwhile, a pro-government Tuareg militia says that six of its fighters were killed overnight Friday when militants raided one of its bases in northern Mali.

BURKINA FASO

Two insurgent attacks on security outposts in northern Burkina Faso’s Loroum and Yatenga provinces early Saturday morning left four Burkinabe soldiers and one police officer dead. It’s unclear who was behind the attacks, and both al-Qaeda and IS have affiliates that operate in the area.

SOUTH SUDAN

Erstwhile South Sudanese vice president and rebel leader Riek Machar told a United Nations delegation on Sunday that there hasn’t been enough progress in talks on forming a national unity government for he and his Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in Opposition faction to participate. Machar and South Sudanese President Salva Kiir signed a peace deal last November that was supposed to produce a unity government by May, and when the two sides failed to meet that deadline they decided to extend it for another six months. Apparently they’re not going to make that deadline either.

The main sticking points involve the integration of rebel fighters into the South Sudanese military; the makeup of a protection force that’s supposed to guarantee Machar’s safety if he returns to Juba to resume his old VP gig, as the deal stipulates; and a disagreement about the number of states the country should have (Kiir wants 28, Machar 21). The UN may look to levy sanctions against South Sudanese leaders if the November deadline passes with no accord.

SOMALIA

The Somali government is working with the IMF, the US, and other international actors to try to get its $4.7 billion debt forgiven by early next year. Somalia is never going to be able to repay that debt, which currently hangs over the country, stifling plans for new infrastructure development and spending on improvements in education and health care.

MOZAMBIQUE

Mozambique’s RENAMO opposition party is rejecting the results of Tuesday’s election and calling for the whole thing to be canceled. The party argues, and the European Union’s observer mission seems inclined to agree, that the election was tainted by violence and electoral shenanigans. The ruling FRELIMO party denies the allegations, and the whole affair threatens to plunge the country back into a state of internal conflict, if not outright civil war.

BOTSWANA

Wednesday’s election in Botswana sounds like it should be a really fun time:

Botswana’s ruling party faces the tightest election of its history on Wednesday after former President Ian Khama, annoyed with his hand-picked successor, announced his support for the opposition, shaking up one of Africa’s most stable countries.

The influential Khama, son of founding President Seretse Khama, withdrew his support after current President Mokgweetsi Masisi broke with some of his policies, including by loosening restrictions on elephant hunting in an apparent bid to appeal to rural voters.

Some Botswanan analysts say Khama defected from his own Botswana Democratic Party because Masisi challenged his control of the party, which has been in power since independence in 1966, and targeted some Khama allies in an anti-corruption drive.

“There is now a growing recognition that Masisi, who has been in office for barely a year, must be given a chance to rule. The Khama effect is slowly beginning to fade,” said Leonard Sesa, senior politics lecturer at the University of Botswana.

Khama’s support may give challenger Duma Boko an outside chance of winning, but of greater concern from a stability standpoint is that Boko is already laying the groundwork to challenge the legitimacy of a loss. On the other hand, Boko’s best electoral argument may be that he represents a change from the country’s current ruling elite, and that’s a tougher argument to make with the former president publicly supporting him.

EUROPE

REPUBLIC OF NORTH MACEDONIA

North Macedonia will hold a snap election on November 12. Prime Minister Zoran Zaev called for a new vote after the French government blocked the country’s EU accession bid on Friday. Zaev has staked his political fortunes on getting North Macedonia into the EU. His popularity took a big hit when he agreed to change the country’s name to North Macedonia in order to get the Greek government to drop its objection to Skopje’s membership in the EU and NATO. So Friday’s rejection was an embarrassment to him, one whose impact he’s clearly hoping to minimize by quickly going to an election and recasting himself as the angry victim of the EU’s betrayal.

SWITZERLAND

As expected, Switzerland’s parliamentary election on Sunday appears to have produced a bit of a setback for right-wing populism and a big boost for leftist environmentalism. Switzerland’s far-right Swiss People’s Party remains the largest in the Swiss legislature, but it’s lost what looks like almost four percent of its support from the 2015 election and around 12 seats. The SVP was one of the first far-right parties in Europe to see On the flip side, Switzerland’s Green Party looks to have gained around six points and 17 seats, vaulting it into fourth place and presumably giving it a seat on the Federal Council, the country’s executive body. The centrist Green Liberal Party also did well, improving by around three points and nine seats. If the two parties can agree to form a coalition—not a sure thing as the Green Liberals are overall pretty centrist—that coalition would be the second largest bloc in parliament and would give them considerable power.

ITALY

Italian authorities on Sunday had to evacuate some 4000 people from the city of Bolzano and order thousands more to stay indoors, so that technicians could defuse yet another piece of unexploded World War II ordinance. In this case the culprit was a 500 pound US bomb discovered during work on a planned shopping center.

SPAIN

Pro-independence protests in Barcelona continued over the weekend but went much more peaceably than they had on Friday, when demonstrators threw projectiles at police, who responded with “non-lethal” ammunition and other crowd control methods. Anger is still high over Monday’s sentencing of nine separatist leaders to prison terms over their involvement in the 2017 Catalan independence referendum. But things do seem to be calming down somewhat, and Sunday even saw a unionist counter-protest that attracted several hundred people.

UNITED KINGDOM

In what’s being called one of the largest protests in the city’s history, an estimated one million people demonstrated outside Westminster Palace in London on Saturday in favor of a new Brexit referendum. Inside Westminster, meanwhile, the House of Commons was considering Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s newly negotiated Brexit deal in what was slated to be an up or down vote. They did not hold an up or down vote. Instead, MPs voted to approve an amendment to the agreement that in theory required Boris Johnson to seek another Brexit deadline extension from the European Union. The amendment, put forward by MP Oliver Letwin, bars parliament from giving Johnson’s deal its final approval until after it passes the legislation necessary to make that deal a reality. The intent is to avoid the possibility of a no-deal Brexit on October 31 in the event that the nuts and bolts of the deal aren’t yet in place by then.

Forced by the previous adopted “Benn Act” to request an extension from the EU since there was no deal in place by the act’s deadline, Johnson did indeed fulfill his obligation. In fact, he sent two requests to Brussels. The first was apparently a photocopy of the Benn Act, unsigned, meant to fulfill Johnson’s legal requirements under the act. The second was a much more formal request for the EU to ignore his initial request for an extension. The EU is likely to grant his request for an extension, which is the one he doesn’t actually want. Johnson’s cabinet is saying that the UK will leave the EU on October 31 anyway, because neither the EU nor parliament, apparently, is the boss of Boris Johnson.

This brings us to the legal portion of these proceedings, which in hindsight was probably inevitable. Since Johnson had previously assured the courts that he would comply with the Benn Act, he could now be found in contempt of court if—as seems reasonable—a court decides that his second request was a violation of his obligation under the act. Scotland’s Court of Session could fine or even jail Johnson as soon as this week, though the anti-Brexit side is asking the court to continue the matter while they wait to see what happens.

AMERICAS

CHILE

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced on Saturday that he would roll back a subway fare hike that has sparked massive and frequently violent demonstrations in Santiago, but that may be too little, too late:

Protests and violence in Chile have spilled over into a new day and turned deadly despite the president cancelling a subway fare hike that prompted the violent demonstrations.

Officials in the Santiago region said three people died in fires at two looted supermarkets early on Sunday. Five more people later were found dead in the basement of a burned warehouse and were not employees, authorities said.

At least two airlines cancelled or rescheduled flights into the capital, affecting more than 1,400 passengers on Sunday and Monday.

Piñera’s fare hikes were the final straw in a country that was already struggling with high inequality before he took office last year and began imposing his austerity policies. The Chilean army has imposed curfews in Santiago over the past two nights under a national state of emergency that will last for at least the next 15 days.

BOLIVIA

Early returns are in from Sunday’s Bolivian presidential election, and it looks like incumbent Evo Morales has “won” but will face a runoff that could yet end his time in office. Morales has 45 percent of the vote with 84 percent counted, ahead of his main challenger, Carlos Mesa, at 38 percent. To win in the first round Morales would need over 40 percent of the vote and a greater than 10 percent margin of victory, and one for two doesn’t cut it. If these results hold—and it should be noted that Morales still thinks he’s going to win outright—it will be the first time Morales has been forced to a runoff. Morales has raised eyebrows by running for an unconstitutional fourth term even after Bolivians rejected that possibility in a 2016 referendum. That said, he’s done remarkable work in reducing poverty and inequality while bolstering Bolivia’s economic growth, so he’s got a strong record on which to run. The runoff will depend to a large degree on turnout.

Morales (right) with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who’s about to face (see below) an election of his own (Wikimedia Commons)

HAITI

Haiti’s current political crisis involving President Jovenal Moïse and the loud calls for his resignation over corruption allegations may be as chaotic a period as the country has ever seen:

Though the country has been trapped for years in cycles of political and economic dysfunction, many Haitians say the current crisis is worse than anything they have ever experienced. Lives that were already extremely difficult, here in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, have become even more so.

Weeks of unrest around Haiti, coupled with rampant corruption and economic malaise, have led to soaring prices, a disintegration of public services and a galloping sense of insecurity and lawlessness. At least 30 people have been killed in the demonstrations in the past few weeks, including 15 by police officers, according to the United Nations.

“There is no hope in this country,” said Stamène Molière, 27, an unemployed secretary in the southern coastal town of Les Cayes. “There’s no life anymore.”

CANADA

Canada will be holding its federal election on Monday. Polling is very tight, but after losing a fair amount of support when the public learned about his youthful penchant for donning blackface, things are actually looking up a little for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He may be able to eke out a victory, of sorts, if he can negotiate enough parliamentary support to sustain a minority government. He’s unlikely to hold on to his Liberal Party’s majority, however, and may well lose outright to the Conservative Party.

UNITED STATES

Finally, and sadly, the dream has died:

Trump insists he was going to host the G7 without profiting from it and maybe even “at ZERO COST to the USA.” Wow! I can’t believe we blew such a great opportunity! Anyway, we’re supposed to believe that Trump was stunned by the reaction, I guess because all of the other times he’s used his office to enrich himself haven’t gotten him that much pushback.