World update: October 7-8 2019

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

Gmar hatimah tovah and an easy fast, if you’re fasting, to those observing Yom Kippur.

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

October 7, 1571: The Battle of Lepanto

October 7, 2001: The US begins its invasion of Afghanistan. I wonder how that whole thing turned out?

October 8, 451: The Council of Chalcedon opens with the aim of settling the Christological debates embroiling Christianity. The council repudiated the 1449 Second Council of Ephesus, which concluded that Jesus had one nature that was both human and divine—the miaphysite position. Chalcedon took a dyophysite position and declared that Jesus had two natures, one fully human and one fully divine, joined in a “hypostatic union.” This became the orthodox position on the nature of Christ.

October 8, 1856: Chinese authorities storm a British-flagged ship, the Arrow, in Canton harbor on suspicion of piracy. What probably didn’t seem like a big deal at the time wound up kicking off the Second Opium War, which ended with China ceding additional territories to Britain’s colony at Hong Kong and parts of Outer Manchuria to Russia.

October 8, 1912: Montenegro declares war against the Ottoman Empire, beginning the First Balkan War. In a sign of how far the empire had fallen, its forces were both outmanned and outgunned by the Balkan League (Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia, backed by Russia), which won a decisive victory. The Treaty of London, signed on May 30, 1913, ratified Albania’s independence, with its borders to be determined by the “Great Powers” (Austria-Hungary, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom), who did such a good job that some 40 percent of the Albanian population in the Balkans was left out, causing problems that have lingered to the present day. It also forced the Ottomans to cede the rest of their Balkan territory to the League and the island of Crete, which formalized its annexation to Greece. Bulgaria emerged as the new dominant Balkan power, which immediately set up the collapse of the League and the Second Balkan War pitting Greece and Serbia against Bulgaria.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

I offered some observations on Donald Trump’s decision to enable a Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria at LobeLog, including what I would expect the Syrian Democratic Forces to do next:

Nevertheless, a Turkish offensive is coming. And since the SDF now finds itself in imminent danger of an attack with no hope of U.S. protection, it will undoubtedly look elsewhere for allies. There is, ultimately, only one party to which the SDF can turn—the Syrian government. The SDF has had intermittent contact with Damascus over the past several months but so far its demands for regional autonomy have been too much for Bashar al-Assad to abide. We don’t know how far those talks advanced, but surely SDF leaders saw this day coming. Even if they chose to ignore Washington’s long history of using and then abandoning Iraqi Kurds, Trump himself has already tried to abandon them once before, and it has always been hard to envision the U.S. backing the Syrian Kurds in a conflict against a fellow NATO member, if it came to that. So it’s conceivable that an agreement between Damascus and a much weaker SDF could come together fairly quickly. Indeed, by Tuesday morning SDF officials were already talking about the possibility of cutting a deal with Damascus and its Russian patron.

Those Turkish airstrikes that were initially reported on Monday as having hit SDF positions in northern Syria were actually aimed at northern Iraqi supply lines into Syria, to prevent any attempt by Iraqi Kurdish groups to send supplies or fighters to join the SDF in Syria. Which likely means Turkey will start invading Syria fairly soon, and indeed the AP is reporting that there are signs of a military buildup on the Turkish side of the border while the SDF says Turkish forces have shelled one of its border positions. In the meantime the Syrian government is publicly pressuring Syrian Kurds to cut a deal while the US State Department is trying to convince SDF leaders that somehow the US hasn’t abandoned them, despite all evidence to the contrary. This is based on Trump’s threat on Monday to “obliterate” the Turkish economy if they attack the Kurds, a threat that the Turks have already publicly blown off even as US officials insist that they see signs that Ankara is having “second thoughts” about carrying out a full-scale invasion.

At Jacobin, historian Djene Bajalan and friend of the newsletter Michael Brooks of the Michael Brooks Show argue that the US withdrawal doesn’t advance a leftist agenda:

The threat Turkey presents to the Syrian Kurds is one of existential proportions. If Turkey occupies Northern Syria, the social progress made in the region, including advances in women’s liberation and popular self-government, would be destroyed. We have already seen Turkey and the Islamist militias it backs reverse these gains in Afrin.

More broadly, Turkey’s plan to resettle millions of Arab Syrian refugees in the region would be carried out at the expense of the Kurdish population. Erdoğan is determined to not only end this specific Kurdish administration but to quash the Kurds’ potential to play a decisive role in the affairs of Northern Syria in perpetuity. Again, Turkey’s actions in Afrin — seizing Kurdish lands, driving Kurds from their homes — provide an ominous foreshadowing of the potential fate of the rest of Rojava.

This is a difficult question to grapple with and I’m not sure there’s a “correct” answer. There is obviously a compelling anti-imperial (not to mention strategic) argument for getting U.S. forces out of Syria altogether. On the other hand, the “how” matters, and if the manner of the withdrawal enables Turkey—which is behaving as simply another imperial power at this point—to carry out mass human rights violations then that’s not really a good outcome from a left perspective.

YEMEN

The United Arab Emirates has reportedly withdrawn some of its forces from Aden as the Southern Transitional Council and the Yemeni government circle a deal to hand control of that city off to a “neutral” Saudi-led force in return for a greater STC political role moving forward. To the north, at least four children were killed on Tuesday by an explosive device near the port city of Hudaydah. The device’s origins are unknown but there’s a good chance it was a Houthi landmine. And government forces say they’ve captured the town of Fakhar from the Houthis in Dhale province. If accurate if suggests that the pro-government coalition is on the verge of pushing further north into Ibb province.

IRAQ

Monday saw protests break out in only two Iraqi provinces, Diwaniya and Baghdad, and Musings on Iraq’s Joel Wing believes that’s a sign that the movement is dwindling due in part to the level of violence the Iraqi government has employed to suppress the demonstrations. However, Baghdad is claiming that at least some of that violence is coming from parties unknown:

Since Oct. 4, demonstrators have faced masked security forces, with the latter using severe violence in order to suppress the protests. There have also been reports of many snipers positioned atop high buildings in the areas where protesters gather, shooting the protesters. These snipers, whom authorities say they have nothing to do with, are behind the sudden rise in casualties over the last few days.

Iraqi security forces have said several times that unknown forces are targeting the protesters, as well as the Iraqi army and police, in what security officials claim is an attempt to escalate the clash between the two sides.

Those unknown forces could be Popular Mobilization militia fighters affiliated with Iran, responding to demonstrations in which some clearly anti-Iran sentiments have been expressed. That’s probably the likeliest scenario, fueled by the Iranian government’s consistent and at times quite harsh condemnation of the demonstrators. But it remains a theory at this point.

IRAN

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, says that Tehran plans to begin using a new bank of 30 advanced IR-6 centrifuges to enrich uranium soon, in addition to the 20 IR-6s it began using last month. That will dramatically improve its enrichment capacity and represents a further reduction of Iran’s commitment to the 2015 nuclear deal.

Despite the failure to get Donald Trump and Hassan Rouhani to meet in some fashion during last month’s United Nations General Assembly, the diplomatic effort to get Iran and the United States talking may still be viable:

Both Iran and the United States apparently gave their provisional ascent to the framework — or “package” — that the French initiative helped develop as a basis for possible negotiations, said Ali Vaez, director of the Iran program at the International Crisis Group. The challenge is sequencing, he said.

“It is reality that both sides believe that the package Macron put together was workable,” Vaez told Al-Monitor. “It is a question of sequencing. Both sides were interested and comfortable with the elements that were in the package."

“Again, the only problem was choreography, and that is why both believe that this is not the end of the road,” Vaez said. “The concept of the package remains viable.”

ASIA

AZERBAIJAN

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev on Tuesday appointed his chief economic adviser, Ali Asadov, as his new prime minister, and parliament dutifully (and unanimously) confirmed his appointment. Azerbaijani PMs don’t have very much power—that’s what happens in dictatorships—but the move reflects Aliyev’s recent tendency to surround himself with people whose background is in economics (previous PM Novruz Mammadov was more of a foreign policy guy). Asadov is also apparently connected with the family of Aliyev’s wife/vice president, Mehriban Aliyeva.

AFGHANISTAN

A bombing in a classroom at Ghazni University on Tuesday wounded at least 19 students, 12 of them women. It’s unclear who was responsible but the Taliban seems likely.

On Monday, a bus carrying recruits for one of Afghanistan’s security services (it’s not clear whether these were police or army recruits) was bombed in the city of Jalalabad, killing at least ten recruits and wounding 27 other people. The Islamic State was probably the culprit here though the Taliban is also active in Nangarhar province.

The Taliban, meanwhile, released three Indian engineers who were among a group of people it kidnapped back in 2018, in exchange for the release of 11 Taliban captives by the Afghan government.

Finally, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security says that security forces killed the head of al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, Asim Umar, in an attack on a “Taliban compound” in Helmand province late last month. Six other alleged AQIS fighters were also killed. The Taliban, which would prefer that its ongoing relationship with al-Qaeda not be publicized, is denying the claim and says the Afghan raid only killed civilians.

CHINA

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said on Tuesday that her government has no plans to use the region’s reactivated colonial emergency law to impose any further regulations apart from the face mask ban it’s already imposed. The emergency law lets the government create new laws pretty much on a whim, though, so Lam may change her tune at some point. The mask ban has by itself raised tensions considerably, as epitomized on Monday when Hong Kong police made a “show of force” in the region’s Mong Kok district and wound up having to withdraw in the face of public opposition.

The US Department of Commerce on Monday levied sanctions against 28 Chinese government agencies and companies alleged to be participating in Beijing’s ongoing crackdown against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province. The entities were put on a “trade blacklist” that the Trump administration has been building with respect to the Uyghur situation.

AFRICA

LIBYA

Libya’s internationally-recognized Government of National Accord says that UAE drones carried out airstrikes in support of Khalifa Haftar’s “Libyan National Army” in Gharyan city on Monday. Gharyan has been an LNA target during its offensive to take control of Tripoli. The UAE has consistently denied playing an active role in the Libyan civil war but its support for Haftar is no secret.

SOUTH SUDAN

The South Sudanese government needs to renegotiate the terms of its 2011 secession agreement with the Sudanese government. Under that deal, South Sudan was to pay Sudan $3 billion to make up for Sudan’s lost oil revenue (paid via a surcharge on South Sudanese oil exports, which run through Sudan’s refineries), but it still has $600 million left to pay and it’s due by the end of the year, which South Sudan now says is an impossible deadline.

ETHIOPIA

Hundreds of people protested in the city of Bahir Dar, capital of Ethiopia’s Amhara region, on Tuesday demanding that the government reveal more information about the alleged “coup attempt” that took place there back in June. The subtext of Tuesday’s protests may be tension between the Amhara Democratic Party, part of Ethiopia’s ruling coalition, and new parties that have gained strength as Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has opened up the country’s political system. While welcome in many ways, that opening has also led to an explosion of small ethnic nationalist parties, many of which have their own militias and are led by strongmen. That phenomenon is almost certainly what led to the June incident.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Al Jazeera reports that a militia group called Mai Mai–Bafulero has been battling the ethnically Tutsi Banyamulenge community in South Kivu province for weeks, killing at least 100 and displacing tens of thousands more. There are innumerable Mai Mai militias in North Kivu and South Kivu provinces. It sounds like this one might be connected with the Bantu Furiiru people. Both the Mai Mai and a Banyamulenge militia are blaming one another for starting the conflict.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

Al-Monitor’s Maxim Suchkov suggests that Russia’s main concern with the pending Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria is the threat it poses to the Russian-led diplomatic effort to end the Syrian civil war:

Russia’s primary concern is the future of the [Syrian constitutional] committee, and it is sending a message to Turkey that its offensive in northeast Syria must not impede the committee's progress. Russia also wants to convey to Turkey a message regarding the commitment made by the "Astana guarantor states" — Russia, Turkey and Iran — to preserve Syria's territorial integrity.

"The Kremlin knows Turkey is committed to the postulate of Syria’s territorial and political integrity, to the understanding that Syria’s territorial integrity is the point of departure," [Kremlin spokesman Dmitry] Peskov said. "We hope that our Turkish counterparts will first and foremost adhere to this postulate in all situations."

Although it sounds like Russia is persuading itself with this statement — and wanting Turkey to hear it — the statement also reflects a worry of the Kremlin's, that the Turkish operation may reinforce the trend of Kurdish separatism, or perhaps lead to a lasting foreign occupation of Syrian territory.

If anything the looming threat of a Turkish attack should weaken Kurdish separatism as it pushes the Kurds closer to Damascus in the search for allies. It will lead to an expanded Turkish occupation, however. At the same time, Suchkov argues that Russia isn’t interested in preventing a Turkish invasion because it expects the outcome will damage US relations with both Turkey and the Kurds, and Russia can come in afterward to negotiate Turkey’s eventual withdrawal from Syria.

Don’t worry—I’m sure these guys will figure it all out (Wikimedia Commons)

UKRAINE

The Ukrainian government decided on Monday to hold off on pulling its forces back from the front line of its frozen conflict with separatists in the Donbas region due to rebel shelling. The rebels and Kyiv have agreed to move their fighters back from the front line in two different spots as a confidence building gesture, but hostile artillery fire has a way of eroding confidence.

GERMANY

German authorities arrested a Syrian national on Tuesday for stealing a truck and then ramming it into traffic, injuring at least eight people. His motive is unclear but there is at least one fairly obvious possibility.

ITALY

Italy’s parliament on Tuesday approved a pet project of the Five Star Movement to drastically reduce its size. If the plan holds up (it could be challenged via referendum), then starting with the 2023 election the Chamber of Deputies would be cut from 630 members to 400, and the Italian Senate from 315 members to 200.

PORTUGAL

In a thoroughly unsurprising move, Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa on Tuesday tapped Prime Minister António Costa for another term in office. Costa’s Socialist Party emerged as the country’s largest political party following Sunday’s election, and he should have a fairly easy time renewing his current support arrangements with the Communist Party and the Left Bloc.

UNITED KINGDOM

Meanwhile, in what I’m sure you’ll agree is a stunning turn of events, it would appear that the UK and the European Union are not going to be able to come to a Brexit arrangement before the deadline at the end of this month. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson now seems to be in full “the buck stops over there” mode, casting around for anybody else to blame for the failure to reach a deal, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel. The EU appears to be of a similar mind, as it’s reportedly planning to offer London a deadline extension into next summer that it must know Johnson will likely reject. Several of Johnson’s cabinet ministers are reportedly set to walk to protest his handling of the negotiations and what it may mean for Northern Ireland.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

Something has been causing oil to wash up on Brazilian shores for about a month now, but Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro insists that the oil isn’t Brazil’s:

ECUADOR

Protests against Ecuadorean President Lenín Moreno and his austerity program escalated on Tuesday to the point where the Ecuadorean government is now located in the city of Guayaquil, not its regular capital of Quito. Thousands of protesters stormed the National Assembly building in the capital while multiple battles with police broke out across the city. Moreno, who says he won’t restore the fuel subsidies whose cuts sparked the protests last week, declared a state of emergency in Quito and then decamped to slightly friendlier environs. Moreno is reportedly interested in foreign mediation to try to solve this crisis, with the United Nations and the Vatican on his list of potential mediators.

Rather than admit that immiserating International Monetary Fund-mandated austerity might be unpopular, Moreno has instead decided that his predecessor, Rafael Correa, is manipulating events behind the scenes in an effort to oust him from office, and that he’s being helped by—who else?—Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. The governments of other Latin American countries—Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Peru—issued a joint statement on Tuesday supporting Moreno and agreeing that it’s All Maduro’s Fault. Whatever helps them all sleep at night, I guess.

UNITED STATES

Several Congressional Democrats are concerned that the Trump administration might pull the U.S. out of the Open Skies Treaty, which permits signatories (primarily the US and Russia, but also the rest of NATO and members of the former Warsaw Pact) to undertake short-notice surveillance flights over each other’s territory. It’s a core element of the global order that keeps everybody from fighting World War III, because it allows each party to gather first-hand information on what the other parties are doing with their militaries without fear of repercussions. So naturally the Trump administration doesn’t like it. Proponents of scrapping the treaty have suggested that there’s enough readily available satellite imagery floating around now that overflights are no longer particularly important. Though if that were really the case, there shouldn’t be much objection to just leaving the treaty in place, right?

Finally, Ben Judah and Nate Sibley argue that tackling the problem of global corruption has become an existential matter for the West, and that the effort to fight back has to begin with addressing shady offshore financial networks:

The world of offshore finance is not restricted to Mediterranean microstates or colonial holdovers in the Caribbean: It is everywhere, including the United States. It is estimated that developing countries lose up to $1 trillion in illicit finance annually—much of it ending up in the U.S. financial system, which has become a nexus of global corruption. The U.S. Department of the Treasury suggests that approximately $300 billion is laundered in the United States each year, or roughly 2 percent of national GDP—though the true figure may be much greater.

Anonymous finance is kleptocracy’s handmaiden. This system runs primarily on global networks of shell companies that can be created and controlled with almost total secrecy, making them the contemporary jet-setting criminal’s money laundering vehicle of choice. And the United States is mass-producing these weapons of mass corruption.

Domestic reform is urgently needed to enable international action, coordinated primarily between Europe and the United States. The offshore finance and pay-to-play political systems created over decades to maximize the power and wealth of Western plutocrats are now being used by authoritarian kleptocrats to undercut the West itself.