World update: September 17 2019

Stories from Israel, Iran, Spain, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 16, 1955: A group of senior military officers begins an uprising they call the “Revolución Libertadora” against Argentine President Juan Perón in the city of Córdoba, Argentina. The coup would end with Perón’s resignation on September 21 and the junta assuming power on September 23.

September 16, 1970: Black September begins

September 17, 1176: A Byzantine army under Emperor Manuel II Komnenos is defeated by the Seljuks in the Battle of Myriokephalon in southern Anatolia. The outcome reversed almost two decades of Byzantine success against the Seljuks and, while it wasn’t especially decisive, represents what was really the last chance the Byzantines had to drive the Seljuks out of central Anatolia and maybe begin to rebuild their empire.

September 17, 1978: The Camp David Accords are signed

September 17, 1982: The Sabra and Shatila massacre

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

At least ten Iranian-backed Syrian militia fighters were killed on Tuesday in a missile strike targeting the town of al-Bukamal near the Syrian-Iraqi border, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the activist group Deir Ezzor 24. Those deaths are unconfirmed and it should be noted that both Reuters and the Syrian government have been saying there were no casualties in the attack. It’s almost certain that the Israeli military was responsible, though again reports differ as to whether drones or manned aircraft were involved.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The polls have closed in Israel and, while it’s invariably a mistake to put too much stock in exit polls, they’re not looking terribly positive for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As expected, his Likud party is once again in a dead heat with the centrist-for-Israel Blue and White party led by retired General Benny Gantz with neither party anywhere near a majority. In what would be a crucial difference from April’s first bite at the apple, Likud is actually running a bit behind Blue and White in some polls. If that holds up in the vote count then Gantz could get first crack at forming a government, putting Netanyahu’s tenure as PM in jeopardy.

While the race for top party appears too close to call, it seems reasonable to conclude at this point that former defense minister Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party is going to emerge with enough seats (somewhere in the neighborhood of ten) to allow Liberman to play kingmaker. And that’s not good news for Netanyahu either. He and Liberman don’t like one another very much these days, and more importantly Liberman simply cannot co-exist with the ultra-orthodox religious parties on whose support Netanyahu depends. That’s why he’s Israel’s former defense minister.

Three people who are about to have an interesting few days: Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in the middle, with Benjamin Netanyahu to his left and Avigdor Liberman to his right (Mark Neyman / Israeli Government Press Office via Wikimedia Commons)

Liberman has been calling for a unity government, and if he controls ten seats or thereabouts he can demand it because it will probably be impossible for either Netanyahu or Gantz to form a government without him. He wants a coalition that includes both Likud and Blue and White, because that coalition wouldn’t need to cater to those ultra-orthodox parties. And apart from religious matters there’s not much that separates Likud and Blue and White—Gantz has, if anything, tried to run to Netanyahu’s right when it comes to the Palestinian issue. Gantz is now also calling for a unity government, so the pressure will be on Netanyahu to either acquiesce or get out of the way.

It’s almost unthinkable that the Israelis would opt for yet another snap election, so it may be Liberman’s way or the highway. In that case, who would serve as prime minister of this unity government? It’s not clear, of course, but Gantz would make more sense than the scandal-plagued Netanyahu, who’s burned a lot of bridges during his premiership. There’s a chance that Likud will move to oust him as leader on its own volition if it looks like the party isn’t going to emerge in full control of the next government. Liberman is an outside possibility, but he probably won’t have that much leverage. Speaking of leverage, if it looks like he’s going to be ousted Netanyahu may try to negotiate some immunity from the corruption charges he’s facing in return for going quietly, though he’ll be working with a pretty weak hand.

SAUDI ARABIA

The repercussions from the weekend’s attack on Saudi oil facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais continues to be the biggest story in the region. Attention is now focused on the question of whether a retaliatory strike on Iran is in the offing, since to reiterate we’ve all collectively decided to just assume the Iranians were responsible, and on how long it’s going to take for the Saudis to get their oil production back up to pre-attack levels. There was some surprising news on the latter front on Tuesday, as Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman announced that the kingdom has already “restored more than half” of the lost production by tapping into its oil reserves, and that it expects its production capacity to be back up to 11 million barrels per day, roughly where it was before the attack, by the end of September. Initial estimates suggested it could be weeks or months before the kingdom’s oil production recovered.

In unrelated news, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry said on Tuesday that the US will not work with the Saudis to develop their nuclear power capabilities unless the kingdom agrees to adopt the International Atomic Energy Agency’s “Additional Protocol.” The AP is an expanded inspections regime that gives the IAEA wide latitude to make snap inspections of relevant sites in order to head off any attempt to develop nuclear weapons. The Saudis have resisted accepting its requirements.

IRAN

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday seemingly ruled out the possibility of direct US-Iranian negotiations pretty much ever, saying that “all the officials in the Islamic Republic unanimously believe that there will be no negotiations at any level with the United States.” “Believe” could have a couple of different meanings there (especially in translation), so it may not be a categorical rejection. Khamenei did allow as to the possibility of multiparty talks involving Iran and the US, but only after the US lifts its sanctions and drops the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Donald Trump, in response, said he doesn’t want to meet with the Iranians anyway. I don’t know where we ever got that idea.

Now, as far as the response to Saturday’s attack goes, both the US and the Saudis now believe “with very high probability” that the Iranian military carried out the strike from a base in southwestern Iran, using both cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. The projectiles flew low and passed through Iraqi and Kuwaiti airspace to avoid Persian Gulf radar networks, though the idea that they completely evaded detection is one of only several holes in this theory. Another is the lack of a motive for Iran to carry out a strike like this from Iranian soil when it has many other staging alternatives that would offer at least plausible deniability.

Neither government has deigned to prove this allegation either to the public or to any of their allies, it seems, and if you’re not at least a little suspicious about whether they’re cooking up some fake intel then you haven’t been paying attention either to US foreign policy for the past couple of decades or to the Trump administration’s rather tenuous relationship with the truth. There are apparently some projectiles that fell before reaching their target, and examining them (as well as wreckage found at the attack site) might provide some information as to their origins. They do appear to be Iranian-designed cruise missiles, either the Houthis’ Quds-1 variant or their Iranian template, the Soumar.

The Trump administration is reportedly “weighing” its options in terms of attacking Iran. Trump is believed to be asking the Pentagon for options that are least likely to provoke an Iranian response and thereby risk escalation, so ideas like a cyberattack or a limited strike on an Iranian oil or Revolutionary Guard facility. Ideally it seems he’d prefer to support a Saudi attack rather than have the US conduct one itself, which leads one to believe that he hasn’t been paying attention to his Yemen briefings. Nothing appears to be imminent but obviously that can change in a hurry.

ASIA

TAJIKISTAN

Three Tajik border guards and one Kyrgyz border guard were killed on Monday evening in a border clash in Tajikistan’s Ghafurov district. Tajik locals apparently began building something in a disputed area, so Kyrgyz locals began putting up a fence in that same area, and the situation spiraled from there. The Tajik government is accusing Kyrgyzstan of escalating the confrontation by rushing dozens of security forces into the area, but things seemed to calm down on Tuesday. Nearly half of the Tajik-Kyrgyz border has never properly been delineated, which leads to frequent incidents like this.

AFGHANISTAN

Two Taliban suicide bombers killed at least 48 people total on Tuesday. In one attack, a bomber targeted a campaign rally being held by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Parwan province, killing at least 26 people (Ghani was unharmed). In the second attack, a bomber blew himself up in downtown Kabul, killing at least another 22 people. The attacks come less than two weeks after the collapse of Taliban-US peace talks and reflect the Taliban’s intention to disrupt Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential election.

KASHMIR

Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar told reporters on Tuesday that New Delhi maintains its claim over all of Kashmir, including the part controlled by Pakistan, and that it expects to one day possess the entire region. I’m sure the Pakistanis will appreciate his interest.

CHINA

A couple of outlets are reporting that the Chinese government has opened a $400 billion credit line for Iran that could, among other things, finance Chinese development projects in Iran while skirting US sanctions. Details are sketchy but this would be a massive blow to that aforementioned “maximum pressure” policy if it’s accurate.

NORTH KOREA

The Russian government says it’s seized two North Korean boats and some 80 sailors caught while illegally fishing in Russian waters. Three Russian coast guards were wounded when the capture turned violent.

OCEANIA

SOLOMON ISLANDS

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare’s decision to cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan and recognize China has already paid off, in that US Vice President Mike Pence is reportedly unwilling to speak with him. I don’t know about you, but I’ll recognize China right now if it means there’s no chance I’ll ever have to talk to Mike Pence. That said, since Sogavare has been looking to discuss development projects with Pence, for him this probably feels like a punishment.

AFRICA

TUNISIA

It’s official: lawyer Kaïs Saïed and media tycoon Nabil Karoui finished first and second in Sunday’s Tunisian presidential election and will face off in the runoff, whose date has yet to be announced. Neither pulled in anywhere near 50 percent, with Saïed at 18.4 percent and Karoui at 15.58 percent, so there’s no apparent reason to assume either is the favorite going into the second round. Karoui remains in jail on corruption charges and is looking to get himself released before the runoff.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

Russia’s state-owned weapons dealer says it wants to talk with Gulf states about a new Russian anti-drone defensive weapons system. It’s hard to know if the Russians are serious about this or tweaking the US in the wake of the attack in Saudi Arabia over the weekend. Vladimir Putin definitely tweaked the US and the Gulf states on this subject during his meeting with Hassan Rouhani and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Ankara over the weekend, when he suggested the Gulf states should buy Russia’s S-300 and S-400 air defense systems. A hearty laugh was enjoyed by all.

At LobeLog, Gareth Smyth looks at Putin’s heavy emphasis on cultivating Middle Eastern clients:

“Syria and the Middle East have become important arenas for Russia to articulate military strength and gain weight on the international stage,” says Zaur Gasimov, senior research fellow at the University of Bonn’s Russian Studies Department and a Baku-born German national. “Russia’s come-back to the Middle East…has forced traditionally American-oriented countries like Israel to look for understanding with Moscow.”

The impetus for Israeli-Russian intelligence coordination in Syria was that both were flying jets in Syrian airspace and wanted to avoid an incident like the 2018 downing of an Israeli F-16 by a Russian-supplied Syrian surface-to-air missile. This is despite Russia’s intervention being in support of president Bashar al-Assad, whom Israel regards as dangerously close both to Hezbollah and Iran.

Moscow’s relationship with Tehran, which reaches back into centuries of rivalry including Iran’s cession of territories in the Turkmenchay Treaty of 1828, is arguably even more nuanced. Energy co-operation and continuing Russian support for Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, rejected by the Trump administration, are just two aspects. “Russia is aware Iran could rise up to a regional power, and has counter-balanced this by developing strong ties with Ankara,” says Gasimov.

BELARUS

The US and Belarus are planning to restore full diplomatic relations, with ambassadors and everything. Minsk kicked out its last US ambassador and pulled its ambassador from Washington in 2008 in the wake of US sanctions against Belarusian individuals charged with violating human rights and undermining democratic reforms.

SPAIN

Last-ditch talks on forming some kind of Spanish government collapsed for good on Tuesday, and the country will now head into its fourth election in the past four years on November 10. Emerging from April’s general election, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez was unable to secure either a coalition agreement or an arrangement to support a one party minority government. Opposition leaders from across the political spectrum blamed Sánchez for the impasse, saying that he preferred a new election to conceding anything to make a deal. Polling suggests that the next election will be nearly as indecisive as April’s vote turned out to be, though Sánchez’s Socialist Party may emerge in a slightly stronger position.

UNITED KINGDOM

Luxembourgian Prime Minister Xavier Bettel’s mockery of British PM Boris Johnson on Monday has apparently devastated alpha male Boris’s delicate feelings and may make it harder for the UK and European Union to reach a new Brexit agreement. There’s no reason to think that a deal was in the offing before Bettel clowed on the extremely clownable Johnson, but the fact that he did may bolster Brexit hardliners in their hostility toward the EU and push them to support leaving without a deal. Which would hurt the UK more than the EU, but at least it would make those extremely tough Tories feel better about themselves.

Meanwhile, it turns out the British government has continued to sell military equipment to the Saudis despite a court ordering them to stop doing that sort of thing:

The UK's international trade secretary has apologised to a court for two breaches of a pledge not to licence exports to Saudi Arabia that could be used in the Yemen conflict. 

Ministers promised to stop approving shipments in June after a challenge by campaigners at the Court of Appeal. 

Liz Truss said the granting of licences for £435,000 of radio spares and a £200 air cooler for the Royal Saudi Land Forces had been "inadvertent". 

An internal inquiry is taking place.

It was inadvertent, you see. Just like every time the Saudis bomb a school bus, those are inadvertent too.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

The US Treasury Department on Tuesday sanctioned three individuals and 16 entities alleged to have helped the Venezuelan government profit from food aid.

CANADA

Cameron Ortis, a senior figure within the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s intelligence division, has been arrested and charged with leaking classified information to the head of a company called Phantom Secure. The CEO of Phantom Secure pled guilty last year to charges that his company supplied secure communications devices to drug cartels. Canadian officials are still assessing Ortis’s leak but there is some concern that Canadian allies may reduce their intelligence sharing with Ottawa or at least with the RCMP.

UNITED STATES

Finally, because we’ve probably reached the point where even eliminating fossil fuel use would only lessen the impact of climate change, the United Nations held its first Global Climate Restoration Forum in New York on Monday to discuss geoengineering:

The Foundation for Climate Restoration’s report outlines the most promising of these options, such as Climeworks, a Swiss company that uses giant machines to pull CO2 from the air and use it in greenhouses to boost plant growth. It has more than a dozen projects under way and has partnered with an Icelandic project that injects CO2 deep underground into basalt formations.

Another avenue defined by the foundation as “permanent, scalable, and financeable” is a company that turns CO2 into limestone that can be used in building. It recently supplied concrete for a new terminal at San Francisco’s airport.

The report also mentions the intentional placing of iron in parts of the ocean to boost its ability to absorb CO2, as well as efforts to seed reflective sand across the Arctic to reduce escalating melting.

Some of these ideas, like dumping iron into the ocean, are likely to do far more harm than good, and even the ideas that seem cool are likely to be very difficult to implement at a scale that will make a difference and will undoubtedly have their own unforeseen downsides. But this is where we’ve left ourselves, unfortunately.