World update: September 14-15 2019

Stories from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 13, 533: The Byzantine general Belisarius and his army defeat the Vandals in the Battle of Ad Decium, near Carthage. This was Belisarius’s first victory in his invasion of North Africa and kicked off his campaign to restore the western empire.

September 13, 1993: Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Yasser Arafat sign the Oslo I Accord in Washington, DC. Oslo I established the creation of a Palestinian government as well as provisions for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Occupied Territories and economic cooperation between the Israelis and Palestinians. It was supposed to be an interim agreement but, well, you can see how that went.

September 14, 1829: The Treaty of Adrianople ends the Ottoman-Russian War of 1828-1829. The Ottomans ceded control over the eastern shore of the Black Sea and the mouth of the Danube River, re-guaranteed Serbia’s autonomy, allowed Moldavia and Wallachia to become Russian protectorates, and paid a large settlement to the Russians.

September 14, 1960: At a meeting in Baghdad, the governments of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela agree to form the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. Everything has gone really well ever since. Also on this date, with CIA help, Congolese Army Colonel Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in a bloodless coup in Kinshasa. That worked out really well too.

September 15, 994: The Fatimid Caliphate defeats a combined Byzantine-Hamdanid army at the Battle of the Orontes in what is today northwestern Syria. The victory allowed the Fatimids to wipe out the Hamdanids and add Syria to their caliphate.

September 15, 1821: The Captaincy-General of Guatemala—encompassing the modern states of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua—declares its independence from Spain. Independence day in all five of those countries.

September 15, 1894: The Imperial Japanese Army captures the city of Pyongyang from Qing Dynasty China in one of the first engagements of the First Sino-Japanese War. China opted to abandon Korea to the Japanese, and when the war ended with a Japanese victory the Korean peninsula came under Japan’s regional sphere of influence.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

A car bombing in the northern Syrian border town of al-Rai killed at least ten people on Sunday. Al-Rai is occupied by rebels supported by Turkey, so speculation will likely revolve around the Kurdish YPG militia. Of course, the Islamic State is always a possibility as well. A bit further south, rebels and observers reported heavy Syrian government artillery fire over the weekend against Maarat al-Numan and surrounding areas in southern Idlib province. The government and Russia seem to be winding down the ceasefire they imposed on August 31 and chances are that Maarat al-Numan will be their next major target. Bashar al-Assad announced another amnesty for draft dodgers on Sunday provided they report for service within the next 3-6 months. It gets downplayed because they’re winning the war, but the Syrian military has been overextended for several years now and these periodic amnesties highlight its manpower challenges.

YEMEN

Yemeni officials say that Houthi shelling in Hudaydah and Taiz provinces over the weekend killed at least 13 civilians.

IRAQ

The Iraqi government on Sunday reached agreement with the Gulf Cooperation Council to build a $220 million, 200 mile long transmission line that will link Iraq’s power grid to the GCC’s via Kuwait. The line will enable Iraq to import 500 MW of electricity, which is not enough to solve Iraq’s perpetual electricity shortage but can’t hurt. It can be upgraded to accommodate as much as 2 GW, which is also not enough to solve Iraq’s perpetual electricity shortage but would help substantially.

Peance Freeance Secure Iraq is now fighting a drug problem:

Last year in Basra province, Iraq’s southernmost governorate and the one with the worst drug problems, 1,400 people, almost all men, were convicted of possession or sale of illegal drugs, mostly crystal meth. More than 6,800 are in prison nationwide and that is excluding the Kurdish region, which accounts for about a fifth of Iraq’s population, according to Iraq’s Supreme Judiciary Council.

Still, that number is relatively small for a country of about 39 million. But because drug addiction has mainly struck two cities — Basra and the capital, Baghdad — it is highly visible.

And because it is a largely new problem in Iraq, neither community leaders nor government officials seem ready to deal with it other than by putting people in prison.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Benjamin Netanyahu held a cabinet meeting in the Jordan Valley on Sunday in what has to be some of the most shameless election pandering in Israeli history. Facing an election on Tuesday that promises to be just as inconclusive as the one Israel held in April, Netanyahu is scrambling to boost right-wing nationalist turnout and to make sure those voters choose his own Likud party. His new flirtation with annexing the Jordan Valley—a move that would turn the remaining Palestinian-occupied portions of the West Bank into a larger version of Israel’s open-air prison in Gaza—is the way he’s decided to achieve that. The cabinet decided to legalize a Jordan Valley settlement during its meeting, possibly a prologue to the full annexation they’ll announce once Washington unveils Kushner Accords after Tuesday’s election.

In an effort to give his pal Bibi a pre-election boost, Donald Trump has been talking up the possibility of a US-Israel mutual defense pact, an idea that is popular among Israeli voters but has not been terribly popular among either US or Israeli policy-makers in the past. US officials have worried that a mutual defense pact would serve as a green light to Israel to attack its regional enemies so as to provoke a war in which the US would be obliged to get involved. So they’ve sought to specify the terms under which the US might intervene to defend Israel, which Israeli officials have considered illegitimate restrictions on their behavior. Israel is better off with an undefined relationship in which it’s just understood that the US will always come to its aid under any circumstance than it would be with a well-defined mutual defense treaty to which the US could refer to justify not coming to its aid. Of course, Trump won’t demand a well-defined treaty, so anything Netanyahu negotiates with him could be the best of both worlds from Israel’s perspective.

EGYPT

Egyptian officials say that Sinai militants attacked a checkpoint in the city of Arish on Saturday, killing at least three soldiers while losing at least three of their own fighters.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi says his military is not corrupt, though once you have to start denying that sort of thing there’s a pretty good chance it’s true. An Egyptian businessman named Mohammed Ali, who is now living in exile, has been posting videos online for several days now alleging that the military is appropriating treasury money allocated toward building projects including luxury hotels as well as opulent palaces for Sisi and a tomb for his deceased mother. Ali says the military stiffed him to the tune of some $13 million for work he’d done as a contractor, though he hasn’t offered any evidence to support his accusation and his own father claims that it’s Ali who owes the military money for some reason.

SAUDI ARABIA

So those explosions that were just being reported as I was wrapping up Friday’s update turned out to be very serious business. There are a lot of accusations and conjectures flying around right now but the story as it was initially reported is that the Houthis conducted a drone strike on two oil-related facilities in eastern Saudi Arabia—an oil field at Khurais and an oil processing facility at Abqaiq. Of the two, the latter was the more critical target as it converts nearly seven million barrels of sour crude into sweet crude every day. The combined effect of the strikes has been to cut Saudi oil production by an estimated 5.7 million barrels per day—over half of the kingdom’s normal output and around five percent of the global oil supply. It could take weeks for the Saudis to restore full capacity, and oil prices are already soaring as a result. In the short term the Saudis and US may tap into their reserves to try to stabilize oil prices, and if prices rise high enough and stay there, some US fracking operations may come back on line, which would obviously increase supply though not enough to compensate for the Saudi decline.

IRAN

The initial story about the Abqaiq and Khurais attacks quickly came under scrutiny after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took to Twitter to blame Iran and claim that there was “no evidence” that the attack had come from Yemen. Iranian officials have denied Pompeo’s accusation and say they’re ready for war if that’s where the US intends to take things. Apart from the Houthi claim and the fact that they’ve attacked targets inside Saudi Arabia repeatedly there doesn’t seem to be “hard” evidence that the attacks came from Yemen.

But is there any evidence they came from somewhere else? Any evidence at all to support Pompeo’s accusation? Well, yes, but not much. The US government released satellite imagery on Sunday that it says show that buildings at Abqaiq took heaviest damage on their northwestern and northern sides, arguing against a strike from the south and for a strike from somewhere to the north. And that’s about it for hard evidence. Some Iraqi media outlets have reported that the strikes originated within Iraq, a claim the Iraqi government denies. Kuwaiti officials say they’re investigating a possible drone or missile sighting that could be related to the attack, but that’s pretty thin. Even the satellite images aren’t conclusive—some buildings look like they were hit from the west, which is incongruous with an attack from either Iraq or Iran.

A related issue here is whether the strike involved drones or cruise missiles, or a mix of both. The initial reporting said drones, the Houthis claimed drones, even videos of the blasts suggested drones because you can hear people firing small arms at something in the air, which they probably wouldn’t be doing against missiles. But the damage is pretty heavy for drones and both the Saudis and the US are claiming they have evidence of missiles. If missiles were involved, then based on what is known of the Houthis’ cruise missile capabilities it would be more likely that the attack came from somewhere else, either Iraq or southwestern Iran. It’s unclear how somebody in Iraq or Iran could have launched cruise missiles at Saudi Arabia without the kingdom’s air defenses picking up on it, though to be fair at this point we have plenty of evidence that the Saudis aren’t very good at the whole “military” thing.

Anonymous US officials say they have hard evidence that Iran carried out the attack but so far they’re only talking in vague suppositions about how the “scope” and the “precision” of the attack means it could only have been Iran’s doing. That’s even thinner than the Kuwaiti story. They insist they plan on releasing evidence in the coming days, but a) so far they haven’t, and b) why would anybody believe them if they did? Some of the names at the top may have changed but this is the same country that brought you Saddam Hussein’s mobile biological weapons labs and his yellowcake uranium shopping spree. The US has no more credibility on issues like this, to the extent it ever had any. The upshot is that we don’t know who attacked these Saudi facilities. The other upshot is that, whether it was the Houthis, Iran, or a combination of the two, the lesson here is that whatever we’re doing in the Middle East isn’t working.

The attack and the accusations against Iran will probably quash any lingering chance for an encounter between Donald Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at this month’s United Nations General Assembly, and it’s possible that was the point. If Pompeo’s accusation is a lie then it represents an effort by US anti-Iran hardliners to discourage Trump from meeting with Rouhani. If Iran or an Iranian-aligned militia in Iraq really did carry out the attack, then it likely represents an effort by Iranian anti-US hardliners to discourage Trump from meeting with Rouhani. These guys have a lot in common, really. Trump now says it’s “fake news” that he would be willing to meet Iranian leaders without preconditions:

This will come as a great shock to, uh, Donald Trump, who said just a few weeks ago that he would meet with Iranian leaders without preconditions. Maybe he doesn’t know what “preconditions” means.

The attack may prompt a US retaliation, because killing people is one thing but hurting The Oil is something else entirely, and while I would expect that retaliation to be calibrated in a way that US policymakers think won’t oblige Iran to respond, this is how wars start. The attack also makes it clear that, in addition to choking us and barbecuing our planet, humanity’s oil addiction is also making us all much less secure.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

Afghan officials say their security forces, backed by US air support, conducted several successful attacks against Taliban targets over the weekend. In Paktika province on Saturday evening, a joint air and ground operation reportedly killed at least 85 Taliban fighters, while an airstrike killed the Taliban’s shadow governor in Samangan province and a ground operation killed a Taliban shadow district governor in Farah province. The Taliban has denied these claims, contending that it only lost seven fighters in Paktika province and that its Samangan governor is still alive.

The White House on Sunday confirmed that the US killed Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s son, during a counterterrorism operation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region several months ago. For several weeks US officials have been saying that they believed Hamza was dead but there had been no confirmation. Hamza bin Laden had either taken control of the remnants of central al-Qaeda or was serving as a sort of recruiting mascot for the group—either way his death will hurt a bit, but not that much.

At Jacobin, Pakistani academic Farooq Sulehria argues that, while Zalmay Khalilzad’s peace deal with the Taliban was probably a bad idea, a US withdrawal from Afghanistan is not:

Just ahead of Trump’s September 8 tweets, media were reporting a “deal” between Washington and the Taliban. Details of the “deal” were kept secret even from the Afghan government, which was in fact locked out of the negotiation process by the US representative Zalmay Khalilzad. If one goes by media leaks, the ill-fated deal would have had the United States pull out without the Taliban agreeing to a ceasefire. The Taliban, meantime, would not attack the departing troops. In simple words: the United States was abandoning Afghanistan to a bloody civil war.

If the reports were true, the “deal” hammered out by Khalilzad epitomized opportunism of the highest order. In media commentaries, a sigh of relief has been heaved on Trump’s tweets derailing the “deal.” After all, even an optimist could argue that a US withdrawal may perpetuate and aggravate the bloodshed in Afghanistan.

Yet an end to the US occupation of Afghanistan would be a welcome step. Arguably, it will create the necessary conditions for a return to peaceful times in the country. A balance sheet of US misadventure will provide the necessary context.

PAKISTAN

The Pakistani government is demanding answers after clashes on both its Afghan and Kashmiri borders over the weekend. Indian cross-border fire in Kashmir on Saturday reportedly killed at least one woman in the village of Balakot. Also on Saturday, four Pakistani soldiers were killed in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province in two cross-border attacks from Afghanistan. Islamabad summoned diplomats from both India and Afghanistan to register complaints.

CHINA

Protests in Hong Kong turned violent again Sunday evening, as protesters threw gasoline bombs at police and Chinese government offices in the city, and police used tear gas and water cannons on the protesters. Sunday’s protests began with a peaceful demonstration outside the UK consulate asking British officials to use whatever influence they have with Beijing to protect Hong Kong’s freedoms.

NORTH KOREA

Kim Jong-un wrote a letter to Donald Trump last month inviting him to Pyongyang. I wholeheartedly encourage Trump to make the trip and, if he likes it there, feel free to just stay. I’m sure they’d love to have him.

Trump has already walked into North Korea, so all he has to do next time is just keep walking (Wikimedia Commons)

OCEANIA

AUSTRALIA

The Australian government has apparently determined that China was responsible for a cyber-attack against networks belonging to its parliament and three largest political parties prior to May’s election. It’s not commenting publicly, mostly out of fear of alienating Australia’s largest trading partner, and the Chinese government is denying the charge. There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that the hacks affected the election.

AFRICA

TUNISIA

Tunisian voters turned out for the first round of that country’s presidential election on Sunday, and while the vote count hasn’t been completed it looks like two outsider candidates are heading for the runoff, probably on October 13. The polling firm Sigma Conseil puts law professor Kaïs Saïed in first place with 19.5 percent of the vote and media mogul Nabil Karoui in second place with 15.5 percent. Karoui remains in custody over corruption charges but has been allowed to run nevertheless. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, considered one of the frontrunners, is believed to have come in fifth. Saïed and Karoui have taken different tacks to appeal to frustrated voters—Saïed has positioned himself as the anti-corruption candidate, while Karoui has adopted a more populist tone with promises of increased aid to the poor.

ALGERIA

Interim Algerian President Abdelkader Bensalah announced on Sunday that he’s scheduled the country’s presidential election for December 12. Bensalah is caving to pressure from Algerian army boss Ahmed Gaid Salah, who has called for an election by the end of the year, while ignoring pressure from the tens of thousands of Algerians who keep protesting every Friday to insist that the country’s ruling elite must all resign before an election. His decision is likely to reenergize the protest movement and we may see some very large demonstrations in Algeria in the coming days.

BURKINA FASO

Leaders from the members of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) gathered in Ouagadougou on Saturday and pledged a combined $1 billion toward the fight against Islamist groups in the region. It’s unclear whether that money would go to the underfunded G5 Sahel force that’s supposed to be combating al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates in West Africa. Much of the region problem is centered in Mali, where the northern and central parts of the country are dominated in several places by the al-Qaeda aligned Jamaʿat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin. The ECOWAS leaders also asked the United Nations to bolster its Malian peacekeeping operation to help combat the problem.

NIGERIA

The New York Times reports that Nigeria’s war against Boko Haram, Islamic State-West Africa, and their various splinter groups still isn’t going well:

Nigeria’s war against the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram was supposed to be over by now. President Muhammadu Buhari, a former military ruler, was re-elected earlier this year after boasting about his progress battling Boko Harm. He has repeatedly declared that the group has been “technically defeated.” On Tuesday, the president conceded that “its members are still a nuisance.”

A full decade into the war, however, Boko Haram militants are still roaming the countryside with impunity. Their fighters now have more sophisticated drones than the military and are well-armed after successful raids on military brigades, according to local politicians and security analysts.

Unsurprisingly, the Nigerian military’s decision to cede control of the Borno state countryside to the insurgents and bottle its forces up inside fortified camps has done nothing but made the insurgency more dangerous. With almost complete control of the countryside, ISWA especially has been able to mass its forces and attack several of those camps, dealing heavy casualties and materiel losses to the Nigerians.

ETHIOPIA

Egyptian, Sudanese, and Ethiopian officials have reportedly restarted their negotiations over sharing water in the Nile River basin to manage the impact of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on water flow. The GERD sits on the Blue Nile, which along with the White Nile feeds the Nile River, and Cairo fears that the process of filling the dam will lead to devastating water shortages downstream. Ideally the three countries would be able to come to an agreement governing the filling and operation of the dam, though talks toward that end have never gone very far in the past.

SOMALIA

Officials in the breakaway region of Somaliland say that the UAE is no longer planning to operate a military air base in the city of Berbera and that the facility the Emiratis have been building will instead be converted to a civilian airport. UAE officials haven’t commented, but they have been tamping down their plans for grand regional expansion in recent weeks (see, for example, their drawdown in Yemen).

CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

At least 23 people were killed in recent days in a battle between two CAR militant groups, the Popular Front for the Renaissance of the Central African Republic and the Movement of Central African Freedom Fighters for Justice, near the Sudanese border. Both groups were among several that signed a peace deal with the government in February, so for obvious reasons the fighting has raised some concerns about the stability of that accord.

EUROPE

BELGIUM

European governments, including Belgium’s, are resisting the repatriation of citizens who went to Syria to fight for ISIS largely because of the potential political risks of bringing them home:

It’s a political matter more than anything; lawmakers won’t dare to defy public opinion. In France, 89 percent of respondents are against the return of adult jihadis and 67 percent oppose the repatriation of children, according to a survey by Odoxa.

The issue of repatriation would also require consensus across the European Union from a security perspective. If a returnee enters the Schengen Area, all of that territory would be at risk because of free movement. A returned Belgian could strike in Spain.

Bringing Islamic State members back also exposes a judicial weakness; a lack of evidence could lead to short prison sentences, and jihadis might only serve three- to five-year jail terms before they are back on the streets. If a terrorist attack were perpetrated by a repatriated fighter in coming years, the political party that approved their return would face devastating consequences.

UNITED KINGDOM

Boris Johnson told British media on Sunday that he’s making “huge progress” in his negotiations with European Union officials on a new Brexit agreement. This came as a great surprise to the European Union officials with whom he’s been negotiating, who actually say they’re in “dismay” over how badly things are going. Johnson is also comparing the UK to the Incredible Hulk, and no it’s not because they’re both really dumb and pointlessly destructive. No, he’s talking about breaking free of the EU’s “shackles,” which I guess is a Hulk thing (?), on October 31 (this seems like he’s talking about a no-deal Brexit), and also something about getting madder and stronger though I have to admit I’m not following this analogy very well. For one thing, the Hulk is frequently the good guy in his comics, so right there the comparison starts to go off the rails.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

The Venezuelan opposition says its Norway-backed talks with Nicolás Maduro’s government are over, declaring via Twitter that Maduro “abandoned the negotiation process with false excuses.” Maduro had suspended his government’s participation in the talks over remarks made some time back by opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s representative in the UK to the effect that Guaidó should abandon Venezuela’s territorial claims in neighboring Guyana in order to bolster his international support.

COLOMBIA

Concerns are growing about the possibility of a military confrontation between Venezuela and Colombia. The revival of armed insurrection by the Colombian rebel group FARC—whose leaders may be operating in western Venezuela—has added to an already tense mix. The Venezuelan military has been holding provocative military exercises near the border. Regional leaders are activating the 1947 Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance, which obliges them to take steps to protect Colombia, and while that treaty doesn’t require military action it could put everybody on a slippery slope leading to military action.

NICARAGUA

The Nicaraguan government has denied permission for an Organization of American States peace mission to enter the country. The OAS delegation was supposed to help negotiate a settlement between Daniel Ortega’s government and its opposition, which has been in outright revolt for over a year after Ortega’s security forces violently suppressed protests over plans to cut pension programs. It’s unclear why the Nicaraguans have turned the OAS team aside.

UNITED STATES

Finally, Stephen Wertheim argues that if US leaders want to make peace, they have to give up the dream of a world kept in check purely through the overwhelming might of the US military:

In theory, armed supremacy could foster peace. Facing overwhelming force, who would dare to defy American wishes? That was the hope of Pentagon planners in 1992; they reacted to the collapse of America’s Cold War adversary not by pulling back but by pursuing even greater military pre-eminence. But the quarter-century that followed showed the opposite to prevail in practice. Freed from one big enemy, the United States found many smaller enemies: It has launched far more military interventions since the Cold War than during the “twilight struggle” itself. Of all its interventions since 1946, roughly 80 percent have taken place after 1991.

Why have interventions proliferated as challengers have shrunk? The basic cause is America’s infatuation with military force. Its political class imagines that force will advance any aim, limiting debate to what that aim should be. Continued gains by the Taliban, 18 years after the United States initially toppled it, suggest a different principle: The profligate deployment of force creates new and unnecessary objectives more than it realizes existing and worthy ones.