World update: October 24 2019

Stories from Syria, Greece, Bolivia, and more

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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

October 23, 42 BC: A Roman army jointly led by Triumvirs Marc Antony and Octavian defeats Brutus’s Republican army in the second phase of the Battle of Philippi. Brutus committed suicide and thereby cleared the Roman political field for the total takeover of the Second Triumvirate of Antony, Octavian, and the almost forgotten Marcus Lepidus.

October 23, 1942: The Axis Panzer Army Africa under Erwin Rommel and the British Eighth Army under Bernard Montgomery meet in the Second Battle of El Alamein in Egypt. The Eighth Army won the battle and drove the Axis out of Egypt on November 11, pushing Rommel back into Tunisia and setting up the final phase of World War II’s North African campaign.

October 24, 1648: The Peace of Westphalia (mostly) ends the Thirty Years’ War under the tenet cuius regio, eius religio (“whose state, his religion”)—in other words, the principle a ruler should be allowed to determine his/her nation’s religion. Many IR scholars trace the origins of a world order based on national sovereignty to Westphalia, with its emphasis on the sanctity of national borders and the principle of non-interference in domestic affairs—hence the term “Westphalian sovereignty.”

October 24, 1912: In the same day, the Ottoman Empire suffers two decisive defeats, one to a Bulgarian army in the Battle of Kirk Kilisse in modern Turkey and the other to a Serbian army in the Battle of Kumanovo in modern North Macedonia. The simultaneous defeats set the tone for the First Balkan War, which had begun on October 8 and would end in May 1913 with a decisive victory for the Balkan League (Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia). The Bulgarian victory at Kirk Kilisse gave their armies an open path to Istanbul, though in two battles at Çatalca (on the outskirts of the city) in November and then in February-April, the Ottomans were able first to stop and then to rout the Bulgarian offensive and save their capital.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Newsweek broke a story on Wednesday that the Trump administration is now planning to put more US soldiers back into Syria:

The United States has drawn up a plan to send troops and tanks to guard Syria's eastern oil fields amid a withdrawal from the country's north, Newsweek has learned.

A senior Pentagon official told Newsweek Wednesday that the United States is seeking—pending White House approval—to deploy half of an Army armored brigade combat team battalion that includes as many as 30 Abrams tanks alongside personnel to eastern Syria, where lucrative oil fields are under the control of a mostly Kurdish force involved in the U.S.-led fight against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS). The Pentagon-backed militia, called the Syrian Democratic Forces and dominated by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), will continue to be involved in securing these oil fields, the official said.

The news comes as other U.S. troops exited territories elsewhere under Syrian Democratic Forces control, where NATO ally Turkey sought to neutralize YPG influence using allied Syrian insurgents. The Turkish operation was halted, however, by a U.S. deal limiting the incursion to a roughly 20-mile "safe zone"—a move President Donald Trump credited with saving "thousands" as he fulfilled his desire to remove U.S. soldiers from the war-torn country at the same time.

Half a battalion can be upwards of 400-500 soldiers, so basically the US would be replacing the forces it just withdrew from Syria with another unit of equal size plus a bunch of tanks that will enter Syria from…Iraq? Turkey? Neither seems like a great staging point at the moment. That force will supposedly be augmented by the SDF, though the administration might want to check with Syrian Kurdish leaders about that. Assuming the SDF does go along with this, it would undoubtedly view this new US force as leverage in its back-and-forth with Damascus over northeastern Syria’s eventual political arrangement, rather than as an ally or partner. Those US soldiers will otherwise be surrounded by unfriendly or outright hostile parties. All to do…something with eastern Syria’s oilfields. Is the US going to extract that oil? To where? With what infrastructure? You can’t just invite Chevron in to set up shop in the middle of a hostile country that’s also still a war zone.

Oh, right, the war. Well, about that. Syrian media reported on Thursday that Turkish forces attacked the Syrian army near Tal Tamr, which is a short distance southeast of the border town of Ras al-Ayn. Which is not great! It’s unclear whether these were regular Turkish army or Turkey’s Syrian proxies, mostly made up of extremist rebels who began the Syrian war fighting against the Syrian army and maybe still view that as their main priority. Controlling them will be one of Ankara’s biggest challenges in trying to maintain its agreement with Russia to jointly administer northeastern Syria. The SDF also accused the Turks of attacking its forces outside the agreed-upon Turkish “safe zone” along the border, while the Turks accused the SDF of attacking their forces near Ras al-Ayn. All in all it was an extremely successful day for the new Turkish-Syrian-Russian world order.

TURKEY

US Defense Secretary Mark Esper lambasted Turkey for its Syrian invasion at a NATO defense ministerial meeting in Brussels on Thursday, while insisting that his boss, Donald Trump, did the right thing in green lighting that invasion. The cognitive dissonance in this administration is really something to behold.

IRAQ

With anti-government protests set to resume on Friday, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi warned would-be protesters on Thursday against engaging in any violent behavior. Since most of the violence that attended the last round of protests came from Abdul-Mahdi’s own security forces, if he’s looking to avoid it this time around maybe he should just tell the police and the militias to stay home.

LEBANON

Lebanese President Michel Aoun offered on Thursday to meet with the people who have been out in the streets for the past several days demanding the ouster of the current Lebanese government. He said he was open to measures that might make it easier to prosecute corrupt public officials and even suggested he might be amenable to “reshuffling” the cabinet. His offer appears to have been rejected. In making overtures toward negotiations Aoun was in part trying to take the starch out of the protest movement and to nudge the protesters toward appointing representatives, who might then be persuaded to neuter their message. The protesters don’t sound terribly interested in doing that. Lebanese banks, the source of much of the corruption that has angered people so much, remain closed and will remain closed until the unrest subsides. That could be a while.

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir told French media on Thursday that “maximum pressure is the only way” to get Iran to negotiate with Riyadh and/or the US. Goodness knows it’s worked extremely well so far. The Saudis still aren’t as interested in talking with Iran as they are in maintaining a US sanctions policy that keeps the Iranian economy in a box and thereby weakens a potential peer competitor for the kingdom.

IRAN

At Foreign Policy, Sina Toossi outlines some of the many ways in which the aforementioned maximum pressure policy has backfired on the US:

Over the past decade and a half, the wars waged by Washington and its allies against the Iran-led camp have all been unsuccessful. Hezbollah fought Israel to a bloody stalemate in 2006. Iranian influence in Iraq has been consolidated. Iran and its allies have won the Syrian civil war. Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has failed to bring Iran to heel.

It has become increasingly clear that the U.S. government has neither the political resolve nor the capability for prolonged military action in the Middle East.

President Donald Trump’s White House has made clear its intent to reduce the U.S. military footprint in Syria and Afghanistan. Moreover, even as Trump has incrementally increased the U.S. troop presence in the Persian Gulf, his bullying and bluster have reinforced perceptions of the United States as an unreliable partner and accelerated a global rebalancing away from U.S.-led economic and security initiatives.

ASIA

PAKISTAN

Despite their serious disagreements over Kashmir, the Indian and Pakistani governments reached agreement on Thursday on a deal to allow Sikh pilgrims from India to visit the Gurdwara of Sikh founder Guru Nanak (d. 1539) in the Pakistani town of Kartarpur. The agreement will allow pilgrims to cross into Pakistan without visas and to go directly to the shrine rather than having to route through another point of entry.

Guru Nanak’s shrine in Kartarpur (Xubayr Mayo via Wikimedia Commons)

INDIA

India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party won a comfortable majority in the state assembly election in Maharashtra state on Thursday, though it wound up losing seats overall. The vote in the northern state of Haryana, meanwhile, left BJP the largest party in the state but short of a majority. Both BJP and the main opposition Congress party will look to attract potential coalition partners there. Opposition leaders tried to spin these results as a sign that BJP’s appeal is wearing off amid India’s economic struggles, but that seems like a reach at this point. The Indian government also held local elections in Kashmir on Thursday, though between the security lockdown there, an opposition boycott, and the fact that Indian authorities are still detaining a huge number of Kashmir politicians, the legitimacy of that vote is questionable to say the least.

AFRICA

GUINEA

Thousands of people turned out on Thursday to protest against Guinean President Alpha Condé’s plans to amend the constitution so that he can seek a third and possibly fourth term. Condé, who is 81, nevertheless seems intent on changing the constitution in such a way as to reset his presidential term limits before his current term expires next year.

ETHIOPIA

At least 16 people have been killed across four cities since Wednesday in clashes between police and supporters of Oromo activist Jawar Mohammed. Ethiopian Prime Minister and newly minted Nobel laureate Abiy Ahmed sent cops to Mohammed’s home in Addis Ababa on Tuesday evening to remove the activist’s personal bodyguard, and the situation has been escalating ever since. Jawar—who was a political ally of the PM until Abiy recently began souring on expressions of ethnic sentiments—called on his supporters on Thursday to back off, and there were signs that the unrest was beginning to subside.

MOZAMBIQUE

Al Jazeera reports on the fallout from last week’s Mozambican election, the results of which are being hotly disputed by the opposition RENAMO party:

EUROPE

RUSSIA

The Russian government—which wasn’t exactly pluralistic to begin with—is increasingly intolerant of any hint of dissent, possibly because it’s already in an uproar about what’s going to happen when Vladimir Putin’s term is over:

The prosecution of [journalist Svetlana] Prokopyeva and other harmless critics comes against the backdrop of foreboding and uncertainty over what might follow Mr. Putin, who has anchored the system for nearly two decades. Even the question of whether he will depart as scheduled in 2024 is the subject of speculation, since he remains more popular than any opponent despite a dip in his ratings.

The resulting jitters, exacerbated by economic stagnation and mostly small but widespread protests that erupted this summer, have left Russia’s numerous law-enforcement bodies scrambling to prove their mettle against potential threats, no matter how puny, and secure their future in a country they all view as a fortress besieged by enemies at home and abroad.

In the aftermath of the protests, which were broken up with often brutal force by the authorities, law-enforcement agencies last week conducted nationwide raids on news outlets critical of the Kremlin and on the homes and offices of people affiliated with the opposition leader, Aleksei A. Navalny.

GREECE

Journalist Yiannis Baboulias argues that European xenophobia has left the European Union perpetually vulnerable to Turkish threats to release more Syrian migrants into Greece:

The question was always what Europe would do to prepare for the next inevitable wave of migrants with the time that the deal had bought. Unfortunately, it made barely any progress toward equitable and humane solutions. Europe’s deliberate choice to keep refugees in hellish conditions on Greek islands has made it subject to perpetual potential blackmail by Erdogan’s government. Despite threats of sanctions by the EU in the face of his brutal invasion of Syria, Erdogan can feel confident that little will be done in response.

Indeed, judging from the conditions at the Greek camps, it seems obvious that Europe is simply too exposed to another refugee crisis to call Erdogan’s bluff. Yet this is precisely what it should prepare to do. An immediate EU relief program should be put in place, and refugees should be evacuated in significant numbers from the Greek islands and into other countries. The facilities in Greece should be upgraded to end the suffering of those who remain. And, in the meantime, the Greek government should actively cooperate with nongovernmental organizations and other groups to house refugees outside the camps, rather than continue its current hostile approach.

SPAIN

The Spanish government on Thursday exhumed the body of former dictator Francisco Franco from its gigantic mausoleum in the Valley of the Fallen (a burial place for thousands killed during the Spanish Civil War) outside of Madrid. It’s a blow to mass murdering fascists and their sympathizers all over the world. Franco’s body will be reburied in a private cemetery, which is better treatment than many of his thousands of victims likely got.

UNITED KINGDOM

Boris Johnson is aiming to hold a snap election on December 12 in order to shore up his position in parliament and allow him to pass his Brexit legislation more easily by the extended January 31 deadline that the European Union is expected to give the UK either by the end of this week or early next week. Johnson needs a two-thirds vote in parliament to hold a new election under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, and at this point there seems to be a great deal of wavering within the Labour Party that could deny him the necessary votes.

AMERICAS

ARGENTINA

Argentina will hold its general election on Sunday, with opposition candidate Alberto Fernández leading incumbent Mauricio Macri by up to 20 percent in the polls. A weak Argentine economy paired with Macri’s International Monetary Fund-mandated austerity program have left the president deeply unpopular, and at this point it would seem the best he can hope to do is to force Fernández into a runoff (a first round victory requires either winning 45 percent or more of the vote or winning over 40 percent of the vote with at least a 10 point lead over the second place finisher). In addition to the presidency, 130 seats in the Chamber of Deputies and 24 in the Senate will also be on the ballot. Fernández’s Justicialist Party is expected to do well in those races as well.

CHILE

Anti-government protests continued in Chile on Thursday, though they passed mostly peacefully in contrast with the riots of last week and earlier this week. President Sebastián Piñera, whose austerity program caused the protests, was expected to send a package of economic reforms to Congress for its consideration, but there’s little indication at this point that those reforms are going to be enough to satisfy the protesters.

BOLIVIA

Bolivian President Evo Morales is claiming victory in Sunday’s presidential election, as the final tally shows him winning by just over the 10 point margin needed to avoid a runoff. The victory gives Morales a fourth term in office, but it comes amid controversy after Bolivian officials halted the count Sunday evening with Morales looking like he would be forced to a runoff. When the count resumed on Monday his lead jumped significantly and that left him in range of an outright victory. Morales on Thursday criticized the Organization of American States for raising doubts about the legitimacy of the vote count. Challenger Carlos Mesa has alleged fraud and called for peaceful marches to pressure Morales into holding a runoff anyway. Morales has accused Mesa and other opposition leaders of attempting a “coup” against him.

UNITED STATES

Finally at TomDispatch, William Astore looks at the militarization of US society and offers “nine signs” that things have really gone too far, including:

1. Roughly two-thirds of the federal government’s discretionary budget for 2020 will, unbelievably enough, be devoted to the Pentagon and related military functions, with each year’s “defense” budget coming ever closer to a trillion dollars. Such colossal sums are rarely debated in Congress; indeed, they enjoy wide bipartisan support.

2. The U.S. military remains the most trusted institution in our society, so say 74% of Americans surveyed in a Gallup poll. No other institution even comes close, certainly not the presidency (37%) or Congress (which recently rose to a monumental 25% on an impeachment high). Yet that same military has produced disasters or quagmires in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Somalia, and elsewhere. Various “surges” have repeatedly failed. The Pentagon itself can’t even pass an audit. Why so much trust?

3. A state of permanent war is considered America’s new normal. Wars are now automatically treated as multi-generational with little concern for how permawar might degrade our democracy. Anti-war protesters are rare enough to be lone voices crying in the wilderness.