As always when FX returns from a break, we’re not going to try to cover everything that happened while I was gone. If there’s something you feel I’ve overlooked feel free to drop me a line.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
October 28, 312: Constantine makes himself the sole ruler of the western Roman Empire by defeating his rival Maxentius at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. This battle is perhaps most famous for the religious vision that Constantine allegedly received the night before, in which either Jesus Christ or Sol Invictus (surviving references are to Christ but there are hints that it may have been the solar deity), showed him a sign and promised him victory if he affixed that sign to his soldiers’ shields. This is supposedly the first step in Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, though it was still some time before he appears to have declared himself a Christian. The battle was unquestionably a major milestone on Constantine’s quest to abolish the Tetrarchy and make himself the sole Roman Emperor, a goal he achieved in 324.
October 28, 1922: Sticking with Rome, Benito Mussolini’s Fascist Party begins the two day March on Rome that would end with its takeover of the Italian government. As blackshirts approached the city, Prime Minister Luigi Facta called for martial law, but Italian King Victor Emmanuel III opted instead to get rid of Facta and make Mussolini his new prime minister. I’m sure it all worked out fine in the end.
October 29, 1923: Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, officially declares the country a republic, although it had been functioning as one for over three years by that point. Annually commemorated in Turkey as “Republic Day.”
October 29, 1929: The “Crash of ‘29,” which began with “Black Thursday” on October 24 and continued with “Black Monday” on October 28, ends with “Black Tuesday.” Over those final two days the stock market lost roughly a quarter of its value, and by July 1932 the Dow Jones Industrial Average stood at just over 40 points, down from roughly 380 in September 1929. The crash signaled the onset of the Great Depression, a global economic crash that especially hit industrialized Western nations and those countries dependent on the West for trade and investment and that wouldn’t really end in many places until after the onset of World War II.
October 29, 1956: The Suez Crisis begins
If you’ve been taking a break from the news too, then you’ll perhaps be pleasantly surprised to learn that over the weekend US special forces killed Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in the village of Barisha in northern Idlib province. I’ve already written about this and why I don’t think it matters very much, but we can certainly recap some of the details here.
Donald Trump announcing Baghdadi’s death on Sunday (White House photo via Wikimedia Commons)
The official story is that Baghdadi blew himself up with a suicide vest rather than be captured, which is consistent with earlier rumors from, for example, Iraqi intelligence to the effect that Baghdadi had begun sleeping in a suicide vest while on the run just in case he were to find himself under attack. We can apparently be pretty certain that it was really Baghdadi because authorities were able to test his DNA against a sample of, and I really wish I were kidding here, some of his underwear that an agent with the Syrian Democratic Forces had pilfered. The Syrian Kurds who make up the bulk of the SDF’s personnel were apparently pretty instrumental in the operation to track Baghdadi down, which means that Donald Trump’s decision to cut them loose as a US ally earlier this month probably interfered with the operation.
It is still unclear how or why Baghdadi had come to be in Idlib province, or how long he’d been there. IS was largely driven out of Idlib earlier in the Syrian war by the rebel groups there, chiefly Jabhat al-Nusra/Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, though it’s never entirely vacated the province and I know there were reports of HTS attacking isolated IS units in Idlib as recently as this past spring. So it’s not completely off the wall that Baghdadi would wind up there on his own. Still, the other insurgent groups in Idlib tend to view IS and Baghdadi as the enemy, so if he was hiding there of his own accord he was trying to outsmart his pursuers by hiding among hostile forces. That, uh, didn’t work out too well. Apparently he was a pleasant neighbor, so there’s that at least.
The alternative is that Baghdadi wasn’t hiding there of his own accord but was put there by a regional actor who had control of him and his whereabouts. I have no idea who that could be so let’s call this hypothetical actor by the completely made up name “Shmurkey.” This “Shmurkey” might even in theory have maintained some operational relationship with IS this whole time, known all along where Baghdadi was, and decided that giving him up now would help it achieve some greater geopolitical goal or goals. But I’m just spitballing here.
It would appear that the US killed a leading contender to succeed Baghdadi as the…well, head of whatever it is IS has become, organizational spokesperson Abu Hassan al-Muhajir (not his real name), in a weekend airstrike that also involved the SDF’s assistance. That could be why IS has been slow to announce either Baghdadi’s death or the appointment of a new leader. Al-Qaeda also took a little while to acknowledge the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 and it had an obvious successor already in place. Of course, as Giorgio Cafiero notes, back in August IS announced that Baghdadi had supposedly appointed an heir, somebody named Abdullah Qardash who claims descent from the Quraysh tribe of the Prophet Muhammad—which means he’s eligible to be a “caliph” in IS’s pretend caliphate—even though he’s Turkmen and the Quraysh, you know, weren’t. Qardash was supposedly an officer in the Iraqi military before signing up with al-Qaeda in Iraq after the 2003 US invasion. He and Baghdadi were allegedly imprisoned together by US forces in Iraq, though there are still a lot of questions around how long Baghdadi was imprisoned, where he was imprisoned, etc.
In non-IS news, there continue to be scattered reports of fighting between the Syrian military and Turkish-aligned forces in northeastern Syria, including an engagement on Tuesday in which at least six Syrian soldiers were killed near Ras al-Ayn in what may have been a fight with the actual Turkish military. The Turks say they captured 18 Syrian soldiers and that the situation is being “coordinated” with Russia. Turkey’s rebel proxies are a wildcard in terms of whether they’ll be able to stop themselves from attacking Syrian soldiers in that region, but if the regular Turkish military is getting involved that’s the path toward an ugly escalation. The Turks, meanwhile, claimed on Tuesday that the SDF had not fully evacuated the border, as agreed under the ceasefire deal Ankara cut with the Russian government last week, ahead of a 6 PM (local time) deadline. Russia then claimed that, actually, the SDF has withdrawn as promised, and so now the Turks say they’ll wait and see what their joint patrols with the Russian military reveal before drawing any conclusions that could upend the ceasefire.
While we were away, the Yemeni government and the separatist Southern Transitional Council cut a deal to stop all their fussing and feuding and kick the can down the road on the eventual Yemeni civil war part II. The deal, whose fine print still seems to be getting worked out, gives the STC control over several government ministries and embeds its militia forces within the Yemeni military in return for the restoration of at least nominal government control over the cities and regions of southern Yemen where the STC has assumed control in recent months. The accord should allow the Saudi-led coalition to resume fighting the Houthis without distraction, though recent developments on that front suggest a lull in that fighting as well.
The US House of Representatives passed two pieces of Turkey-related legislation on Tuesday. In one, it voted 403-11 in favor of a resolution that “calls on” Donald Trump to impose sanctions against Turkey, which is meaningless but irritated Ankara anyway. In the other, it voted 405-11 to officially recognize the Ottoman Empire’s 1914-1923 genocide of some 1.5 million Armenians. You can probably guess how well that went over. The Armenian Genocide is a historical fact, but for political reasons the United States has never recognized it as such. This House vote was obviously motivated by political reasons now but, frankly, so what? Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons has to be preferable to doing the wrong thing for the wrong reasons.
Turkish authorities say they’ve arrested 43 people alleged to have links with the Islamic State who are accused of planning attacks to coincide with Turkey’s Republic Day celebrations on Tuesday. So all you cynics who keep suggesting that Turkey has had some kind of relationship with IS can just stifle yourselves now, OK? Because it’s not like the Turkish state ever carries out mass arrests for purely political reasons.
A new round of anti-government protests began in Baghdad and across southern Iraq on Friday as promised—well, actually they seem to have begun on Thursday, catching Iraqi authorities off guard a bit. But they really got underway on Friday, when Iraqi security forces, in what is now becoming standard operating procedure, killed dozens of civilian protesters and wounded a couple of thousand more. The death toll then subsided a bit over the weekend until late Monday or early Tuesday, when security forces in Karbala—one of the few places in southern Iraq that remained mostly calm on Friday and through the weekend—opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators engaged in a peaceful sit-in and killed at least 14, with some reports saying 18. The massacre—I don’t know what else to call it—in Karbala spurred new protests in Baghdad on Tuesday even as the government tried to deny that anything had happened. Also on Tuesday, protesters blocked the entrance to Umm Qasr, Iraq’s main seaport near Basra.
It is almost impossible to see how the Iraqi government can survive this. Not only has it utterly failed to meet even the most basic public expectations, it’s now taken to systematically killing protesters. Students and professional unions have now joined the movement and the protests are beginning to spread outside the predominantly Shia south to include cities like Tikrit, Kirkuk, and Baqubah. Erstwhile populist firebrand Muqtada al-Sadr, who never misses an opportunity to aggrandize himself by co-opting a public movement, is calling on the head of parliament’s Fatah Alliance, Hadi al-Amiri, to join his Sayroon coalition in a vote of no confidence in Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi. Amiri says he’ll “work with” Sadr but it doesn’t appear he outright endorsed ousting Abdul-Mahdi. Sayroon and Fatah are the two largest blocs in parliament but they’d still need other parties to join in to unseat the PM. Regardless, shuffling out Abdul-Mahdi for some other wholly compromised Iraqi political functionary would at this point be even less meaningful than reshuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic. The whole barrel is rotten, and plucking a different apple out to serve as its nominal leader isn’t going to make any difference.
Speaking of deck chairs, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri has offered his resignation in the wake of 12 days of anti-government protests that have rocked that country. The announcement of Hariri’s decision has apparently thrown demonstrators into a state of jubilation, though it must be said that for now it doesn’t look like Hariri is actually going anywhere. Lebanese President Michel Aoun has to accept his resignation, and he appears to be taking his time about that—probably because Hariri’s resignation threatens to collapse the political house of cards that’s made Aoun’s presidency possible.
Prior to Hariri’s announcement, there were reports of “black-clad men wielding sticks and pipes” attacking protesters in Beirut while chanting slogans in support of Hezbollah and Amal, the two largest Shiʿa parties in Lebanon, and their leaders, Hassan Nasrallah and parliament speaker Nabih Berri respectively. I have some questions here. Nasrallah has sympathized with protesters’ grievances but has resisted calls for Hariri’s government to resign, and it’s certainly possible that some group of his supporters decided to bash some protesters for criticizing their leader. But it’s also possible that a group like the right wing Lebanese Forces party, which has already withdrawn from the government to try to jump on the protest bandwagon and which has its roots in the Christian Kataeb militia movement of the civil war days, could have organized something clever to try to discredit Hezbollah. The sloganeering in these attacks seems a little too on the nose to discount completely the possibility.
The Jordanian government has withdrawn its ambassador to Israel over the Israeli government’s refusal to release two Jordanian nationals. Amman says they’ve been detained for months without cause and without being indicted, and that both are in declining health as a result of their captivity. In Labadi’s case, she’s also undertaken a hunger strike to protest her imprisonment.
The New Arab is reporting that the Israeli military carried out airstrikes near the city of Rafah in northern Sinai on Tuesday. IS affiliated militants ambushed an Egyptian police convoy in the nearby town of Sheikh Zuweid on Monday, killing two police officers, so the strike was probably in response to that. Israel and Egypt often collaborate on security issues in Sinai. Elsewhere, Egyptian officials say their security forces carried out a raid on a militant hideout in the city of Arish on Tuesday, killing at least 13 of them. There was no mention of casualties among the Egyptian forces.
In his first public remarks since being hospitalized while on a trip to the United States last month, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah on Tuesday called the ongoing intra-Gulf Cooperation Council split, between Saudi Arabia and company on the one hand and Qatar on the other, “no longer acceptable nor tolerable.” He doesn’t seem to have directly criticized either side in the dispute, which is a nuance you may miss in reading that Al Jazeera report. Nevertheless, it’s the Kuwaiti leader’s strongest statement on the dispute and, given that the Saudis were the ones who initiated it, implicitly his criticism seems directed their way.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has chosen Argentina’s envoy to the organization as its new head. He replaces Yukiya Amano, who died in July. Grossi has promised to be “absolutely independent and impermeable to pressure” when it comes to handling the IAEA’s business—like its business in Iran to take the most obvious example—but his candidacy was heavily pushed by the US and you don’t exactly have to be Sherlock Holmes to deduce what that probably means.
Back on Friday, the Trump administration unveiled what it Orwellianly (is that a word?) called a new “humanitarian mechanism” that it said would “ensure unprecedented transparency into humanitarian trade with Iran.” It’s supposed to “ensure” that funds associated with trade in permissible humanitarian goods don’t somehow get diverted to supporting the Iranian military or Tehran’s various foul misdeeds. In reality it has officially put a complete kibosh on humanitarian trade with Iran:
The Trump administration has sounded the death knell for humanitarian trade with Iran. By designating Iran a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern and imposing additional restrictions on foreign banks maintaining accounts for Iranian financial institutions, the United States Department of the Treasury has imposed a prohibitive bar for parties seeking to facilitate humanitarian trade with Iran—one that will further put the squeeze on the Iranian people and limit their access to food and critical medicines.
By designating Iran a jurisdiction of primary money laundering concern, Treasury finalized a rule requiring U.S. banks to conduct “special due diligence” on accounts maintained on behalf of foreign banks if those foreign banks themselves maintain accounts for Iranian financial institutions. The practical consequence is that U.S. banks will urge their foreign correspondents to terminate any accounts maintained on behalf of Iranian banks so as to eliminate sanctions risk and mitigate the need to apply additional resources to monitor their foreign correspondents. This will further sever Iran from the global financial system, as Iran’s few non-designated banks find it increasingly difficult to maintain accounts abroad.
US sanctions were already preventing needed medicines from getting to Iran and that was before Friday’s action. It’s a good thing the Trump administration supports the Iranian people or else this could get really ugly!
The International Atomic Energy Agency has opened its first low enriched uranium “bank” in Kazakhstan, similar to one it manages in Russia that is owned by the Russian government. These facilities rely on donations of LEU that countries with nuclear reactors can then obtain as fuel. They could be the solution to, say, the threat of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, in that they could be used to convince countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia to give up their uranium enrichment plans and commit to a regional nuclear weapons-free zone. But creating a regional NWFZ would also require that the one Middle Eastern country that has nuclear weapons a) acknowledge that it has them and b) give them up. Which it would only do under pressure from its closest ally, and said ally has no interest in applying that pressure.
Ashraf Ghani’s government said on Tuesday that it will only participate in peace talks with the Taliban if there is a ceasefire in place, as much for the demonstration that Taliban negotiators actually speak for and can control the organization as for the obvious benefits of a ceasefire. The Taliban have consistently rejected a ceasefire as a precondition for talks, and the deal they almost struck with the US last month—hard to believe it was only last month, isn’t it?—didn’t mandate one. Although that deal fell through at the last minute, Taliban negotiators are treating its terms as settled.
Militants attacked a group of West Bengali laborers in southern Kashmir on Tuesday, killing five and wounding another with three more missing. This is the latest in an ongoing series of small attacks against (mostly non-Kashmiri) civilians since the Indian government revoked Kashmir’s constitutional autonomy in August and imposed a sweeping crackdown over the region to stifle any large-scale resistance.
A group of countries led by the US issued a joint statement at the United Nations on Tuesday condemning China’s treatment of its Uyghur population and calling on other countries not to enable further persecution by returning Uyghur refugees to China. China’s mistreatment of the Uyghurs is a real thing, but to be clear the US is less interested in what actually happens to the Uyghurs than it is in using the Uyghur issue as a tool to try to undermine Beijing’s international influence. The Chinese government has responded by suggesting that US interest in the plight of the Uyghurs could reduce the chances for a Beijing-Washington trade deal.
In what is a strong contender for the dumbest spat between North Korea and South Korea since the end of the Korean War, Pyongyang is suggesting it will demolish a South Korean-built resort at North Korea’s Mount Kumgang. On Tuesday, North Korean officials rejected a South Korean request to hold meetings on the subject. The Mount Kumgang facility is almost entirely inconsequential, since it was built in the 1990s to facilitate South Korean tourism in North Korea but now can’t be used for that purpose because of international sanctions against North Korea. Basically this outburst is Pyongyang acting out.
After meeting with new Tunisian President Kaïs Saïed on Tuesday, Prime Minister Yousef Chahed fired his foreign and defense ministers. In truth, Chahed’s entire cabinet, including him, is running on borrowed time, since his Tahya Tounes party finished an underwhelming seventh in Tunisia’s parliamentary election earlier this month. But Chahed will remain the country’s PM during what is likely to be a protracted negotiation on forming a new governing coalition, so that borrowed time could be months. In the meantime, Saïed will want to have his own governing team in place as much as possible.
The president of Guinea-Bissau, José Mário Vaz, canned his cabinet late Monday, but things turned a bit complicated on Tuesday when the PM, Aristides Gomes, refused to leave office. Gomes is basing his refusal on the fact that Vaz technically shouldn’t be president right now, as his term ended in June. He’s still in office largely because the Economic Community of West African States gave him permission to stay on until next month’s election, in which Vaz is running. Gomes is a member of the African Party of the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde, the party to which Vaz used to belong though he’s now an independent, and the bad blood between Vaz and the party is creating dysfunction within the government. That’s why Vaz sacked everybody on Monday, or at least tried to sack everybody anyway.
Mozambique’s opposition RENAMO party on Tuesday submitted a legal appeal to the official results of this month’s general election. The outcome of that election—an across the board victory for the ruling FRELIMO party, is not particularly outrageous, but the size of FRELIMO’s victory—even in areas thought to be RENAMO strongholds, in districts where the number of votes seems weirdly to have exceeded the number of voters, etc.—seems a little fishy. The country’s Constitutional Council will now rule on the legitimacy of the vote.
In case you were wondering, the ruling Botswana Democratic Party won last week’s parliamentary election with almost 53 percent of the vote, more than enough to return President Mokgweetsi Masisi to office. There was some reason to think the BDP’s hold on power would be challenged this time around because former President Ian Khama broke with the party and endorsed the opposition Umbrella for Democratic Change, but as it so happens the BDP actually outperformed its vote total in the 2014 election and won fairly handily.
Donald Trump has reportedly taken a step toward scrapping the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, drafting and signing a letter giving the required six months’ notice for a US withdrawal. His administration still seems to be deliberating internally though and so he hasn’t submitted the letter yet. It’s hard to comprehend how reckless this action is. The Open Skies Treaty, which allows signatories to conduct short-notice surveillance flights over other signatories (for obvious reasons Russia and the US are the two main participants in this arrangement), is a relatively cost-free way to maintain the post-Cold War peace by ensuring that everybody is aware of what their rivals’ militaries are doing. US officials complain that Russia has blocked some proposed overflights in violation of the treaty, but it is difficult to rationalize tearing up the whole thing because of a few debatable violations.
The Ukrainian government and Russian-backed Donbas separatist forces on Tuesday reportedly began withdrawing and pulling heavy weapons back from the front lines in Ukraine’s over five year long civil war. The Ukrainian and Russian governments signed a deescalation agreement earlier this month meant to bring that conflict toward a peaceful settlement, but plans to begin the withdrawal on October 9 fell through due to scattered exchanges of fire between the two sides and internal discord on the Ukrainian side. If the withdrawal holds, the way should be clear toward a renewal of peace talks and, eventually, elections in the Donbas.
Big news out of the United Kingdom on Tuesday—Prime Minister Boris Johnson actually won a vote in parliament. I know, I wasn’t sure it would ever happen either. Johnson’s fourth request to dissolve parliament and hold a new election finally got a favorable vote after the opposition Labour Party—or at least enough of its MPs—agreed that the risk of Johnson ramming through a no-deal Brexit while MPs were out campaigning is now clearly off the table. The vote will be held on December 12 and polling suggests that while Johnson’s Conservative Party will win the election, it’s unclear whether it will win enough seats for a sole majority. And of course the campaign hasn’t even started yet, so there’s a lot that can happen in the interim.
As expected, Peronist challenger Alberto Fernández won Sunday’s Argentine presidential election, unseating deeply unpopular incumbent/austerity fetishist Mauricio Macri with a shade over 48 percent of the vote (he needed 45 percent to avoid a runoff). With protests roiling the administrations of his comrades in austerity, Sebastián Piñera in Chile and Lenín Moreno in Ecuador, Macri should probably count his blessings that the Argentine public got to settle its beef with him in a simple vote. Fernández should have at least a semi-functional majority to work with in congress.
Uruguay also held a general election on Sunday, in which Daniel Martínez of the ruling Broad Front party won but fell well short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff. Martínez came in at just under 41 percent, which put him about 11 points ahead of the center-right National Party’s candidate, Luis Lacalle Pou, but the momentum ahead of the November 24 runoff may lie with the runner up. Broad Front has been in power for 14 years, and in that light Martínez’s 41 percent looks less like a victory than like a message that voters are ready to give somebody else a turn at the top. If Lacalle Pou can consolidate the opposition vote he could well win the runoff.
Protests against Sebastián Piñera and his government are continuing across Chile, even after the Chilean president promised reforms to decrease inequality and after he sacked eight of his cabinet ministers. The thing is, Piñera himself now has an approval rating somewhere in the neighborhood of smallpox (14 percent), so fiddling around with his ministers isn’t really going to do much to appease the protesters. The demonstrations appear to be reverting to the violence that accompanied the initial anti-government protests two weeks ago, violence that had subsided somewhat last week as organizations like professional unions got involved and began channeling things more in the direction of peaceful marches and strikes.
Although Piñera’s austerity program has been the immediate cause of these protests, Slate’s Lili Loofbourow argues that the motivation runs much deeper and extends all the way back to the neoliberal economic changes wrought by former dictator Augusto Pinochet and their cumulative effect on the Chilean people:
What memes like these show is just how much regular people in Chile struggle to get by. Some context: The median monthly wage in Chile as of 2018 was 379,673 pesos—roughly $524.05. And while the minimum wage was raised in March of this year to 301,000 pesos, electric bills have been going up, fuel costs have risen (according to Bloomberg, the price of a gallon of gas in Chile is about 11 percent of an average day’s wages), and real estate prices have soared. Educational debt has exploded (and what public primary schooling there is rather substandard by design—the dictatorship did its best to privatize public education). So while the country looks prosperous and prides itself on “first-world” amenities like the giant Costanera Center skyscraper and mall, some consider this something of a sustained sugar high whose basis is a heavily indebted population. Only about 15 percent of the population is making more than 850,000 pesos a month ($1,170 USD). (For comparison, Chilean senators take home around $8,300 USD/month, not including an extremely generous benefits package.) And many services have been privatized or semi-privatized: energy, water, roads, health care.
People have been trying hard to make the “oasis” version of Chile true—wearing that happy face for years while they were drowning in debt and working long hours. One protester carried a banner that read “I am not afraid to die; I am afraid to retire.” An article from Sept. 30 on yet another increase in the water bill offered tips on how to ration your consumption. So when Minister of the Economy Andrés Fontaine suggested on Oct. 7 that people could just get up earlier if they wanted to avoid the subway fare hike—he phrased this as a “space” opening for the industrious—people were furious. “Doesn’t he realize that workers already cross entire cities and rise and go to bed in darkness?” one person asked. “In the end they believe that the people are lazy and that’s why they lack what they have had all their lives,” said another. (Fontaine apologized for his remarks on the sixth day of the protests.)
Protests are continuing in Bolivia as well, but not over neoliberalism or austerity. President Evo Morales’s disputed first round victory over Carlos Mesa in Bolivia’s October 20 presidential election has the conservative opposition organizing protests and alleging that Bolivian authorities rigged the vote count in Morales’s favor. To quell the unrest, the Bolivian government has invited the Organization of American States, which is unlikely to do any favors for a leftist like Morales, to audit the vote count, and Morales has pledged to hold a runoff (which is where things looked to be heading on the night of the election) if the OAS finds evidence of fraud. It’s also invited Mesa to participate in that audit. Mesa says he wants assurances that Morales will abide by the results of an audit/recount.
Finally, leadership transitions are always hard on groups like the Islamic State, and there’s a chance at this point that, given the fact that IS now exists more as a loose collection of very geographically dispersed affiliates than as a tight single organization, that everybody will more or less go their own way in places like the Sahel, Lake Chad, the DRC, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, etc. Those affiliates have largely been autonomous anyway and they might keep the IS branding so really not that much would change for them.
As for the core group in Syria and Iraq, it’s not going to disappear and neither is its ideology—we could delve into all the reasons why this is so, but the short explanation is that if Osama bin Laden’s death didn’t end al-Qaeda or international jihadism, then the death of Off Brand bin Laden isn’t going to do the trick either. Regardless, the US government, which is on the fifth or possibly 25th iteration of its incoherent policy for northeastern Syria, now wants to increase the presence of the international anti-IS coalition there in order to prevent an IS resurgence (or reorganization, because apparently we don’t trust whatever combination of Russia, Syria, and Turkey that now owns that real estate to do the job. The US has now of course decided to replace the hundreds of soldiers it’s withdrawn from the Syria-Turkey border region with hundreds of (other?) soldiers whose only remaining job seems to be squatting on eastern Syria’s oil fields. If there was ever any justification for the US to be in eastern Syria in the first place, there’s none now, as there’s no basis in either law or US national interests for the Pentagon to lay claim to Syrian oil. And yet that seems to be exactly what Donald Trump has in (and I use the term loosely) mind:
“What I intend to do, perhaps, is make a deal with an ExxonMobil or one of our great companies to go in there and do it properly...and spread out the wealth,” he said.
President Trump has identified Syria’s oil as a U.S. national security priority and has committed to deploying troops to protect the country’s reserves even as he pulls troops from Syria’s northern regions. U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said this week that the U.S. will send in troops to protect Syrian oil fields from Islamic State militants.
The President of the United States is publicly saying he wants to have One of Our Great Companies pillage Syria’s oil. That’s what this is, and you’ll undoubtedly not be surprised to learn that doing so would constitute a war crime. The US has no authority to touch that oil, let alone “take some,” as Trump went on to suggest. Even if it hands all the oil off to the SDF, that’s a resource allocation the US government has no legal right to make. Now, I get that the US military dangled Syrian oil in front of Trump like a set of keys because the US military doesn’t agree with his decision to withdraw US forces from eastern Syria and its top officers know that the president, being both extremely greedy and extremely stupid, would respond in a Pavlovian way to the idea of “taking the oil.” But their commander in chief is now telling people out in the open that he might order those officers to commit a war crime, and handing IS and other groups like it a huge propaganda score in the process.
I grant you that the last several decades, if not the entire history of the United States, show that senior US military officers don’t have much of a problem committing war crimes in principle. But the first rule of War Crimes Club is that you don’t talk about committing the war crimes. Now that their Glorious Leader has blabbed about this publicly, aren’t these Good Soldiers obliged to resist what would absolutely be an unlawful order from their superior? Isn’t it now incumbent upon them to at least pretend to be uncomfortable with what their boss is saying? Similarly, isn’t it now incumbent upon the majority party in the US House of Representatives to, I don’t know, resist this? Or at least investigate it?
I’m not holding my breath.