World update: October 31 2019

Stories from Lebanon, North Korea, Russia, and more

Happy Halloween!

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

October 30, 637: The Byzantine city of Antioch surrenders to the invading Arabs after the nearby Battle of the Iron Bridge. Antioch was one of the great cities of the Byzantine Empire, but would suffer over the next few centuries due to its presence on the sometimes volatile Byzantine-caliphal frontier.

October 30, 1270: The Eighth Crusade ends

October 30, 1340: The Battle of Río Salado

October 30, 1918: The Ottoman Empire signs the Armistice of Mudros, ending its involvement in World War I and really, as it turned out, its existence.

October 31, 1517: Martin Luther mails his Ninety-five Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, the event that has come to mark the start of the Protestant Reformation. He’s also more famously said to have nailed the text to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, though Luther’s own recounting of events raises questions about whether he did so on October 31 or, really, at all. Regardless, it’s safe to say that word got around.

19th century German painter Julius Hübner’s rendition of Luther affixing his theses to the church door very dramatically, even though such a thing wouldn’t have been particularly dramatic and, again, we don’t actually know that he did so (Wikimedia Commons)

October 31, 1917: The British Egyptian Expeditionary Force defeats the Ottoman Empire’s Yıldırım Army Group at the Battle of Beersheba. The battle was won with, of all things, a cavalry charge, perhaps the last successful cavalry charge in history. The outcome broke what had been a frozen conflict in the Levant and began Britain’s march on Jerusalem, which it captured in December.

October 31, 1940: The main phase of the Battle of Britain, Germany’s sustained air war intended to pound Britain into submission, ends in failure. The outcome was arguably Germany’s first major setback in World War II and is generally regarded as a “turning point” in the war.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

At least eight people were killed Thursday in a car bombing in the northwest Syrian town of Afrin, which is under Turkish control. It seems reasonable to conclude that the Kurdish YPG militia was responsible though it hasn’t claimed the attack and the Islamic State is also a reasonable suspect.

Speaking of IS, on Thursday its media arm acknowledged the deaths of former leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and former spokesperson Abu Hassan al-Muhajir. It named Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi as Baghdadi’s replacement, which is swell though nobody knows who he is. He could be Abdullah Qardash, the guy ISIS named as Baghdadi’s heir back in August, or he could be somebody else—almost nobody in IS leadership seems to use his real name. This nom de guerre, assuming that’s what it is, tells us only that he claims to be descended from the Meccan Quraysh tribe, like Muhammad, and from the Prophet’s own Hashimite clan within that tribe. Which gives him the right family credentials to be IS’s new “caliph.”

The head of the Syrian Democratic Council, the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces, delivered a press conference on Thursday that, if you believe her figures, lays a pretty hefty body count on the incoherent mess that has become Donald Trump’s Syria policy:

Ahmed certainly has an interest in talking up the worst case estimates but even if she’s in the ballpark in terms of the actual figures this is pretty startling.

To add to the incoherence of Trump’s Syria policy, US soldiers were observed on Thursday patrolling near the Syria-Turkey border, an area they were supposed to have vacated earlier this month. The SDF acknowledged the patrol and added that it wouldn’t be a “one-time” thing. Politico, meanwhile, has tried to piece together the terms of the new/old US deployment in northeastern Syria, which looks like it will leave roughly as many US forces in Syria as were there when Trump announced the now-apparently aborted withdrawal, and concludes that despite the president’s assertions, Securing The Oil is (surprise!) not really the point:

But the underlying value of the presence there will have less to do with oil than with maintaining a relationship on the ground with the Syrian Democratic Force — mostly made up of Kurdish militias — that the United States appeared to be abandoning with the pullout, said the former senior military officer.

“Keeping the flag flying in that area is important to let the Kurds know that we’re not completely walking away from them,” he said, adding that Deir ez-Zor “is kind of the heartland” of the remaining Syrian ISIS remnants.

“That’s the place to have that enduring presence. The oil is secondary, tertiary, not even an important factor,” he added. “What is important is to be able to continue to conduct operations against the terrorist cells operating in that part of the Euphrates Valley.”

What’s really crucial here is that the presence of those ground forces means the continued presence of US air power, which is intended to defend the SDF against the Syrian army and, presumably, Turkey as well.

Whether you think the US should be in eastern Syria or not, Trump’s complete reversal here means those hundreds of thousands of displaced persons, thousands of wounded, and hundreds killed all suffered for pretty much no reason other than some minor shuffling around in terms of who controls what parts of the region. Kudos to everybody involved on another job done.

YEMEN

A new report from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project finds that over 100,000 people have been killed in the Yemeni war since it began in 2015. Those are just deaths in combat, so you can include tens of thousands more who have died of its wonderful ancillary causes like disease and starvation. The figure includes 12,000 civilians killed not as collateral losses but in attacks that directly targeted civilians, and of those ACLED estimates that more than 8000 have been killed by the Saudi-led coalition. Some 20,000 people have been killed so far this year, making it the second-deadliest year in the conflict since…last year! Way to keep up the pace!

IRAQ

The second round of Iraqi protests this month has mirrored the first round in terms of the violence employed by Iraqi security forces. Joel Wing counts 98 deaths since the protests began again on October 24, to which we can add at least three more on Thursday to bring the month’s death toll up to somewhere around 250 people. In an effort to calm things down, Iraqi President Barham Salih on Thursday pledged to hold a new parliamentary election after the passage of a new electoral law and said that Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has expressed a willingness to resign once a suitable replacement has been found.

Abdul-Mahdi looked like he might face a no-confidence vote earlier this week when the leaders of Iraq’s two largest parties—Muqtada al-Sadr and Hadi al-Amiri—joined forces to get rid of him, but according to Reuters the Iranian government stepped in and pressured Amiri to change course. It’s hard to believe that one of the big complaints of the protesters is that there’s too much foreign interference in Iraqi politics. Ironically the fallout of Amiri’s about face makes it far less likely that he and Sadr will be able to agree on a replacement Abdul-Mahdi, and at any rate the protesters are demanding systemic change, not a mere change in PM.

LEBANON

Hezbollah’s al-Mayadeen TV outlet reported on Thursday that an Israeli drone was downed over southern Lebanon. Israeli officials are denying that, though as far as I can tell they’re not denying that they flew a drone into Lebanese airspace for some reason.

Also on Thursday, Hezbollah criticized Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s decision to resign, arguing that it “will contribute to wasting the time available to enact the reforms.” Presumably “The Reforms” here means all the things that Hariri’s government still hasn’t done to address the demands of Lebanon’s two-week-and-still-going protest movement, so while his resignation and the need to appoint a new cabinet—which President Michel Aoun promises will be “technocratic,” whatever that really means—certainly adds a new bureaucratic hurdle to the mix it’s not at all clear that it’s actually going to delay anything.

In perhaps the most interesting development yet in this saga, Aoun talked about bringing an end to Lebanon’s unwieldy sectarian-based political system, which allocates certain offices to the country’s various religious communities. Many protesters have been calling for that change, but they don’t seem to actually believe that Aoun can or will follow through on his remarks. The idea won’t be well received by the leaders of those communities, which rely on the sectarian quota system to maintain Lebanon’s highly dysfunctional post-civil war balance of power.

The US is withholding $105 million in military aid to Lebanon, possibly related to the current unrest though the Trump administration hasn’t explained itself.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The Israeli military conducted airstrikes on two Hamas military outposts in Gaza late Thursday after somebody fired a rocket out of the area. There have been no reports of casualties.

It’s taken a while, but there finally appears to be the makings of a rebellion against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his alliance with multiple religious conservative parties emerging within the Likud Party:

While senior Likud leaders do not dispute Netanyahu’s position, a rebellious group within the party — calling itself “the New Likudnicks” — has protested the alliance with the right-ultra-Orthodox parties. In recent weeks, they posted various statements on Facebook against the bloc, such as on Oct. 20, “We are Likud members. Not anti-Zionist Lithuanians [an ultra-Orthodox sect]. No to the bloc!” On Oct. 28, they launched a campaign on the streets and on social media, with the slogan, “We voted for the Likud, not for the bloc. National unity now.”

Nir Hirshman, one of the leaders of the New Likudnicks, told Al-Monitor that the liberal Likud constitution is quite far from the platforms of the other parties in the bloc, and that the only thing connecting some of these parties is an alliance of interests of criminal suspects. “If only [ultra-Orthodox Knesset member] Yaakov Litzman would sign an agreement to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex, and [right-wing Knesset member] Bezalel Smotrich would agree to prohibit racial discrimination, we could add them to our camp,” Hirshman said. “These clauses are set in the Likud constitution and they are the foundation for the party’s values. The heads of the other parties in the bloc ideologically oppose them on principle and thus there is no place for this alliance with them.” According to him, the formation of a unity government is the greatest goal for the State of Israel, “which is now in economic, security and civic paralysis. We are exhausted and the politicians are playing with blocs.”

IRAN

The Trump administration imposed new sanctions on Thursday against Iran’s construction sector, as it’s now decided that it’s illegal for Iranians to build anything. This is another ramification of the administration’s decision to designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization earlier this year. It now has the justification to sanctions pretty much any Iranian for anything. The administration has targeted trade in four materials used in Iran’s nuclear and/or missile programs but you can expect these sanctions to metastasize moving forward. On the plus side, the administration did, as previously reported, extend sanctions waivers for projects to upgrade Iran’s nuclear program in ways that make it more difficult to weaponize, should the Iranians ever decide to go that route.

ASIA

PAKISTAN

Thousands of people protested in Islamabad on Thursday to demand the resignation of Prime Minister Imran Khan. The march was organized by the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl party, whose leader, Fazl-ur-Rehman, has been critical of Khan since his election, arguing that he was installed in office by the Pakistani military. The opposition is gaining support because of Khan’s failure to improve Pakistan’s weak economy.

KASHMIR

As planning, the Indian government implemented the next stage of its Kashmir plan on Thursday, dividing the region into two constituent parts and incorporating them as the new, non-autonomous Jammu Kashmir territory and Ladakh Union territory. In addition to ratcheting up tensions with Pakistan over its administrative changes in Kashmir, the Indian government is also now courting trouble with China, which shares a disputed border with Ladakh and isn’t keen on any changes to what’s already a somewhat tense status quo.

CHINA

Protesters donned Halloween costumes and joined people celebrating the holiday on the streets of Hong Kong on Thursday, prompting authorities to tear gas the lot of them in a very un-celebratory fashion. The Chinese Communist Party on Thursday announced that it will be implementing new security policies for Hong Kong. Specifically it intends to “build and improve a legal system and enforcement mechanism to defend national security in the special administrative regions” of Hong Kong and Macau. It’s not clear what exactly that means, but if Beijing decides to classify the Hong Kong protests as a national security threat it would have pretty wide latitude to crack down.

NORTH KOREA

The North Koreans fired off two short-range projectiles, probably rockets though possibly short range ballistic missiles, in another weapons test on Thursday. That makes 12 weapons tests since May, none of which have triggered a US response but all of which were meant to prod the US to return to negotiations. Since this test involved short-range weapons it’s unlikely to provoke the Trump administration to retaliate.

AFRICA

SUDAN

The Sudanese government on Thursday announced that it’s agreed on a “roadmap” for debt relief with the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and African Development Bank. So that’s, uh, something. A “Friends of Sudan” group is going to get together to essentially finance the country’s 2020 budget through donations. Khartoum can’t secure substantive debt relief or new international financing unless it manages to get off of the US State Department’s state sponsors of terrorism list, so it’s basically looking for ways to bridge the gap until then.

ETHIOPIA

The Ethiopian government is acknowledging that 78 people were killed last week during a brief uprising in defense of Oromo rights activist Jawar Mohammed, triggered when Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed ordered security forces to remove Mohammed’s personal bodyguard. Authorities are still investigating the incident and have said that the official death toll could go up.

CAMEROON

The Trump administration will end Cameroon’s preferential trade status on January 1 over allegations of the government’s human rights abuses. Most of those allegations have to do with violence in and against the country’s breakaway anglophone region, “Ambazonia.”

EUROPE

RUSSIA

Journalist Stephen Paduano argues that Moscow’s heavy-handed approach toward building influence in Africa has had the opposite of its intended effect:

Although Putin has had success with many of his assertive endeavors in Europe and the Middle East—polarizing publics, aiding politicians, annexing eastern Ukraine, and turning the tide of the Syrian civil war—his aggressive maneuvering in Africa has come with clear costs. “When Russia overplays its hand, Africans have distanced themselves,” Devermont said.

What Russia misses in its engagement with Africa, and what the great-power framing encourages others to forget, is that African states naturally have their own political preferences that are not always up for sale or at one leader’s mercy. When Russia courts ruling elites and tries to undermine democratic elections, it ignores basic trends on the continent. In the latest round of polling from Afrobarometer, Africa’s leading public survey firm, 75 percent of respondents expressed their commitment to free and fair elections.

This degree of philosophical difference between the Kremlin and the continent has helped make Russia a political and ideological irrelevance in Africa, despite its powerful presence there during the Cold War. Today, just 0.0005 percent of Africans believe that Russia serves as the best development model for their country, an Afrobarometer spokesperson told Foreign Policy. What’s more, the spokesperson said, the percentage of Africans who believe that Russia has the greatest foreign influence in their country was “lost among the ‘Others.’”

UKRAINE

The Ukrainian government will make additional moves to withdraw its forces from the front lines of its frozen civil war in the Donbas region in order to increase the chances of reopening peace talks. Government and rebel forces began pulling back in the town of Zolote last week, and assuming that goes well—it should be noted that it has not gone particularly well so far, if the reports of rebel shelling in the area are to be believed—Kyiv plans to extend the withdrawal to a second town, Petrivske.

POLAND

The Advocate General for the European Court of Justice has determined that the governments of Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic violated European Union law in 2015 when it refused to take in any migrants from the wave that hit Europe that summer. The Advocate General’s decisions are non-binding, but if the ECJ accepts its determination it could fine all three countries.

SPAIN

New polling indicates that Spain’s far right Vox party could emerge from next month’s snap election much stronger than it is now. The party could come away with 44 seats, up from the 24 it won in April’s stymied election. The Socialists still look to emerge with the largest number of seats, though possible with a few less than they won in April.

AMERICAS

BOLIVIA

The Organization of American States is set to begin auditing Bolivia’s October 20 presidential election. Protests over some hiccups in the vote count and the pervasive belief that the count was therefore rigged in favor of incumbent Evo Morales (who at least preliminarily won by a wide enough margin to avoid a runoff) have turned deadly, after at least two people were killed amid those demonstrations in eastern Bolivia on Wednesday. As there have been both pro- and anti-Morales demonstrations since the election it’s unclear who was responsible for the violence that killed them, and of course each side is blaming the other. Morales has promised to abide by the results of the audit and to hold a runoff against challenger Carlos Mesa if the OAS finds evidence of fraud in the vote count.

UNITED STATES

Donald Trump has nominated his envoy for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, as deputy secretary of state. Biegun has overseen US-North Korea diplomacy, a job he’ll apparently keep assuming he’s confirmed by the Senate (there’s no reason to expect he won’t be). He’ll also presumably be first in line to replace Secretary of State Mike Pompeo if, as has been rumored, Pompeo decides to run for senate. The current deputy secretary of state, John Sullivan, has been nominated to replace the departed Jon Huntsman as ambassador to Russia.

Finally, TomDispatch’s Andrew Bacevich looks at Donald Trump’s (now basically reversed) withdrawal from Syria in the context of what he lays out as the defining principles of US foreign policy in the Forever War Era:

In other words, to acknowledge the folly of this country’s endless wars will necessarily call into question the habits that people in and around Washington see as the essence of “American global leadership.” Prominent among these are: (1) positioning U.S. forces in hundreds of bases abroad; (2) partitioning the whole planet into several contiguous regional military commands; (3) conferring security guarantees on dozens of nations, regardless of their ability to defend themselves or the values to which they subscribe; (4) maintaining the capability to project power to the remotest corners of the earth; (5) keeping in instant readiness a “triad” of nuclear strike forces; (6) endlessly searching for “breakthrough technologies” that will eliminate war’s inherent risks and uncertainties; (7) unquestioningly absorbing the costs of maintaining a sprawling national security bureaucracy; (8) turning a blind eye to the corrupting influence of the military-industrial complex; and easily outpacing all other nations, friend and foe alike, in (9) weapons sales and (10) overall military spending.

Complementing this Decalogue, inscribed not on two tablets but in thousands of pages of stupefyingly bureaucratic prose, is an unwritten eleventh commandment: Thou shalt not prevent the commander-in-chief from doing what he deems necessary. Call it all D+1. In theory, the Constitution endows Congress with the authority to prevent any president from initiating, prolonging, or expanding a war. In practice, Congress has habitually deferred to an increasingly imperial presidency and treated the war-powers provisions of the Constitution as non-binding.