World update: September 24 2019

Stories from Iran, China, Ukraine, and more

This week is United Nations General Assembly, that magical annual event wherein leaders from all over the world gather in New York to talk about all the wonderful things they’re not going to accomplish in the coming year. We’ll have coverage of select UNGA speeches sprinkled throughout this update and over the next few days.

The UN General Assembly hall (Patrick Gruban via Wikimedia Commons)

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 23, 1803: A small British army defeats a Maratha army as much as six or seven times its size at the Battle of Assaye. The British victory helped establish military supremacy in the Deccan, the Maratha Empire’s home turf, and led to Britain’s victory in the Second Anglo-Maratha War. It also launched the military career of the British commander, Major General Arthur Wellesley, who would later be invested the first Duke of Wellington and become a major thorn in Napoleon’s side.

September 23, 1932: Abdulaziz “Ibn Saud” unites his two kingdoms, the Nejd and the Hejaz, into one, the new Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Commemorated as Saudi National Day.

September 24, 1877: The Imperial Japanese Army defeats a heavily outnumbered and even more heavily outgunned samurai force under the command of rebel leader Saigō Takamori, whose entire 500 man army was wiped out. The battle ended the Satsuma Rebellion and the role of the samurai as Japan’s warrior class. You may have seen a fictionalized version of this battle in the film The Last Samurai, though obviously without any analogue for Tom Cruise’s character.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

US and Turkish forces conducted their second joint patrol of northeastern Syria on Tuesday, even though Washington and Ankara still haven’t defined the area they’re supposed to be patrolling. Whatever keeps Turkey from invading, I suppose, though the terms that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan outlined during his UNGA speech on Tuesday are effectively no different from what would happen should Turkey successfully undertake an invasion.

Erdoğan apparently wants a 50 (!) mile deep safe zone that would extend as far south as Raqqa (!!), and he’s selling it as an opportunity to resettle some 3-4 million Syrian refugees back in Syria (2 million in an initial, smaller safe zone, then another 1-2 million after an extension). That’s because he can’t call it what it actually is, which is a massive Turkish land grab followed by the systematic ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish inhabitants of northeastern Syria in favor of mostly Arab refugees who previously lived in other parts of the country. Syrian Kurds, having already seen Erdoğan run through this playbook in northwestern Syria, are understandably resistant to his wishes.

YEMEN

Houthi-controlled media and local witnesses are saying that Saudi airstrikes in Yemen’s Dhale province on Tuesday killed at least 16 people, seven of them children. If you’re counting at home, that’s at least 16 more people than were killed in the September 14 attacks against two Saudi oil facilities that was such a heinous act it has the entire Persian Gulf edging closer to full-scale war. The Saudis are claiming that the Houthis later fired a ballistic missile from Amran, presumably in retaliation, that never cleared Yemeni territory.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel’s two largest political parties, Blue and White and Likud (in that order), have begun discussions on forming a national unity government in the wake of last week’s election. One major question they’ll have to resolve is who would lead that government, Likud boss Benjamin Netanyahu or Blue and White boss Benny Gantz. Gantz directly controls two more seats than Netanyahu, but Netanyahu’s coalition is one seat larger than Gantz’s, so that’s probably a wash though it’s not as though Netanyahu’s entire coalition will be coming with him into a hypothetical unity government (Gantz won’t go for that). A rotating premiership seems like the only way forward, but who gets first turn? Whoever that is would have multiple chances to undermine the other. Gantz has previously ruled out any coalition that includes Netanyahu, but he must be softening on that point since otherwise even these preliminary negotiations would be impossible.

EGYPT

The Egyptian government says its security forces killed six suspected Muslim Brotherhood members in a gun battle following a raid on their hideout in a Cairo suburb. It did not say when the raid occurred. As I pointed out yesterday, any report like this must be taken in the context of the multiple human rights charges that have been leveled against Egyptian forces for staging shootouts to cover up killings that amount to extrajudicial executions.

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir on Tuesday intimated that a military response to the September 14 attacks could still be forthcoming. He also made it pretty clear that such a response won’t be coming from the Saudis themselves, suggesting that “America’s patience” with Iran could run out. All the billions of dollars the Saudis have spent augmenting their own military over the past several years and they’re still basically Chester to Washington’s Spike:

IRAN

The CEO of the company that owns the UK-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero, which was seized by Iran in the Strait of Hormuz back in June, says the vessel has still not left Iran even though Iranian officials say it is legally cleared to go. It’s still unclear from media reports whether the 16 crew members Iran has been holding are also free to go.

Speaking to reporters in New York on Tuesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said he might be amenable to discussing small changes to the 2015 nuclear deal, but only after the United Sates rejoins that deal and lifts its sanctions against Iran. Since the September 14 attacks, European leaders have been pressuring Iran to agree to renegotiate the nuclear accord or negotiate a new deal that maintains restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program and deals with other issues related to regional stability and Iran’s missile program. Rouhani’s comments suggest a broader deal is out of the question but that he does have some latitude to discuss nuclear issues if the US returns to compliance with its obligations. Even that may be a stretch—US actions over the past two years have convinced most Iranian officials that Washington can’t be trusted and that the whole idea of negotiating over their nuclear program is a sucker’s bet.

In his UNGA speech, Donald Trump decried Iranian “bloodlust,” I guess because they hurt The Oil, while insisting that he wants to find a peaceful resolution to the current state of tension in the Persian Gulf. But he also stressed that he’s not going to lift the sanctions, so I guess that’s that. It seems exceedingly unlikely that he and Rouhani are going to meet while Rouhani is in New York, though French President Emmanuel Macron (who met with Rouhani on Monday) is apparently still trying to make it happen (in fairness, he seemed by Tuesday evening to have thrown up his hands over the whole thing). Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan now says that he’s trying to mediate between the US and Iran on Trump’s request, so that’s…something. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, says it “is not realistic” to expect the US to lift its sanctions as a precondition to talks. In other words, it’s unrealistic to demand the US abide by its own international agreements. Which country is the rogue state again?

ASIA

INDONESIA

Indonesian authorities say that 22 of the 26 people killed during a violent Papuan protest in the town of Wamena on Monday hailed from other parts of Indonesia. The implication of course is that they were killed by the protesters rather than by police. Concurrent with Papua’s ongoing separatist movement there is a good deal of resentment in that region over the influx of non-Papuan Indonesians, with locals complaining that the outsiders are taking their jobs, land, and resources. That resentment dovetails with the racism that Papuans often encounter from other Indonesian peoples to create the combustible mix that’s escalated into violence in Papua and West Papua provinces multiple times over the past few weeks.

CHINA

His comments about Iranian “bloodlust” aside, Donald Trump reserved some of the harshest rhetoric in his UNGA speech for China:

“Not only has China declined to adopt promised reforms, it has embraced an economic model dependent on massive market barriers, heavy state subsidies, currency manipulation, product dumping, forced technology transfers and the theft of intellectual property and also trade secrets on a grand scale,” Trump said.

“As far as America is concerned, those days are over.”

Trump’s speech was one of the cornerstones of an overall plan by his administration to use this UNGA session to chip away at Chinese global influence—influence it’s been gaining largely at Washington’s expense. That effort also included a special event on Tuesday in which 30 countries, including the US, criticized China’s repression of its Uyghur minority in Xinjiang. Trump said he “will not accept a bad deal” with Beijing on trade, precipitating a fairly rough day on the stock market as his speech raised concerns about a setback in US-China negotiations. US and Chinese negotiators held talks late last week that don’t seem to have been terribly productive, and that no doubt fed into the market’s uneasiness.

AFRICA

LIBYA

In an example of just how surreal things can get at the UNGA, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani—leaders of two of the countries that have most heavily intervened in the Libyan civil war—used their speeches to decry foreign intervention in the Libyan civil war. Sisi, perhaps the single biggest supporter of Libyan strongman Khalifa Haftar and his “Libyan National Army,” called on the international community “to save our dear neighbor from the ensuing chaos by militias,” which is how Haftar describes his ongoing offensive against Tripoli. Sheikh Tamim, whose country has provided considerable financial support to Libya’s Government of National Accord, accused Haftar and his LNA of committing war crimes and undermining the chances for a negotiated peace. The war is definitely being exacerbated by foreign interference and likely won’t come to an end until the rest of the world agrees to leave well enough alone.

ALGERIA

In a speech on Tuesday, Algerian army boss and de facto political leader Ahmed Gaed Salah lambasted protesters for their “intransigence” and “insistence on chanting some tendentious slogans.” Salah has demanded, and is getting, a presidential election in December, despite widespread calls from the Algerian public not to hold any elections until the country’s ruling elite—including Salah—gets out of the way. He’s insisting that this election will, contrary to previous Algerian elections, actually be free and fair, but even if it is there’s no reason to expect the Algerian military to give up any of the enormous political power it continues to wield, which means there’s no hope for any substantive political change.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

Russia’s Foreign Ministry summoned US ambassador Jon Huntsman (he apparently sent his deputy) on Tuesday over complaints that the US State Department refused to issue visas for ten Russian diplomats to attend the UNGA. The Trump administration so far hasn’t made any comment on the matter.

UKRAINE

Donald Trump acknowledged on Monday that he did freeze hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine prior to a July 25 phone conversation he had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in which he apparently tried to strong arm Zelenskiy into opening a negotiation into the business dealings of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, and whether they involved any corruption on Joe Biden’s part. Trump insists that the freeze and the Biden issue were unrelated, which leaves the question of whether Trump himself is that stupid or just assumes everybody else is. Probably both.

This most recent admission was apparently enough to even move the Democratic Party to actually do something, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced on Tuesday that the House will open a “formal impeachment inquiry” over the issue. It’s unclear to me whether that means the House will begin actual impeachment proceedings or is just planning to have proceedings about the proceedings. Democrats want access to the intelligence community whistle-blower complaint that revealed Trump’s alleged quid pro quo offer to Zelenskiy as well as the transcript of the now-infamous telephone call. The Trump administration says it will provide both, and I’m sure the latter will be forthcoming just as soon as they’ve had a chance to scrub it of any incriminating passages.

As Ryan Cooper points out, in this naked attempt to rig the 2020 election Trump is expanding on a playbook that one of his fringe right buddies followed in his own presidential election:

All this is quite similar to how Jair Bolsonaro won the presidency of Brazil. As documents recently revealed by Glenn Greenwald, Leandro Demori, and Betsy Reed at The Intercept show, before the recent election Bolsonaro's top opponent Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was put in jail through a crooked trial where Judge Sérgio Moro (now Bolsonaro's powerful minister of justice) secretly worked hand-in-glove with the prosecutors to rig the entire thing.

Lula probably actually was guilty of some minor corruption (if for no other reason that he is a top-level Brazilian politician, and that's how business has been done there for decades). But that does not excuse a rigged prosecution whose purpose was to steal a Brazilian election.

UNITED KINGDOM

The UK Supreme Court did indeed rule on Tuesday—unanimously, which was somewhat surprising—that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to prorogue parliament until mid-October was unlawful, meaning that MPs will be back to work on Wednesday (legally, the ruling means they were never actually out of work). The court found that Johnson’s declaration of a Queen’s Speech was done intentionally to prevent parliament from exerting oversight with respect to Brexit. Johnson, who will have to cut short his trip to New York for the UNGA, says he “respects” the court’s ruling, though obviously he disagrees with it. But given the deep commitment Johnson has shown to completely undermining constitutional governance so far, it’s likely he’ll try to find some way around it. MPs, meanwhile, will look to find some way to block Johnson from taking the UK out of the European Union without an exit deal.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

Jair Bolsonaro used his UNGA speech, the first of the whole shebang, to demand that the rest of the world let him destroy the Amazon rain forest in peace:

At the heart of Bolsonaro’s speech – which Brazilian fact-checkers said contained nine falsehoods and five imprecise claims - was a lengthy counter-attack against domestic and international criticism of his highly controversial vision for the Amazon and Brazil’s indigenous communities.

“Any country has problems. But the sensationalist attacks we suffered from the large part of the international media over the fires in the Amazon awakened our patriotic feelings,” he said, accusing foreign critics of questioning Brazil’s sovereignty over the region in a disrespectful and “colonialist” manner.

Among Bolsonaro’s multiple flights of fancy was a claim that “scientists” have demonstrated that the Amazon is not important to the earth’s climate and that the rain forest “remains virtually untouched” even though some 17 percent of it has been destroyed over the past half century. The Brazilian president deployed his military to the rain forest late last month, ostensibly to help combat the fires that have been raging in several areas. There’s at least a 50/50 chance that move is the precursor to a full-fledged military occupation of the Amazon that actually accelerates its destruction.

VENEZUELA

Nicolás Maduro’s Socialist Party returned several parliamentarians to Venezuela’s National Assembly on Tuesday, two years after Maduro stripped the opposition-controlled body of its powers. Maduro still regards the assembly as illegitimate but says he’s hoping the presence of his party’s representatives will spark “dialogue.”

EL SALVADOR

The Trump administration’s new migrant agreement with the Salvadoran government is actually farther reaching, and therefore worse, than originally thought, since it does not appear to be limited to migrants who transit through El Salvador:

Amid a tightening embrace of Trump administration policies, last week El Salvador agreed to begin taking asylum-seekers sent back from the United States. The agreement was announced on Friday but details were not made public at the time. The text of the agreement — which The Intercept requested and obtained from the Department of Homeland Security — purports to uphold international and domestic obligations “to provide protection for eligible refugees,” but immigration experts see the move as the very abandonment of the principle of asylum. Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, policy analyst at American Immigration Council, called the agreement a “deeply cynical” move.

The agreement, which closely resembles one that the U.S. signed with Guatemala in July, implies that any asylum-seeker who is not from El Salvador could be sent back to that country and forced to seek asylum there. Although officials have said that the agreements would apply to people who passed through El Salvador or Guatemala en route, the text of the agreements does not explicitly make that clear.

UNITED STATES

Finally, apart from his diatribes toward Iran and China, the bulk of Donald Trump’s UNGA speech was devoted to extolling the virtues of xenophobic far right nationalism:

In the past, US presidents speaking from the green marble dais in the United Nations' General Assembly Hall have focused on calling for the gathered leaders and diplomats to focus on what brings us together — and how only together can the world move forward.

And then there's President Donald Trump, who in his third appearance at the annual opening of the UN General Assembly was more forceful than ever in declaring the importance of not just nationalism, but a devotion to country and history, in a speech that repeated tropes used by the white nationalist and anti-Semitic portions of his base.

"Like my beloved country, each nation represented in this hall has a cherished history, culture, and heritage that is worth defending and celebrating and which gives us our singular potential and strength," Trump said. "The free world must embrace its national foundations. It must not attempt to erase them or replace them."

"The future does not belong to globalists," he continued, "the future belongs to patriots."

Most of these references—to “heritage,” to “globalists,” to the idea of replacement—come straight out of white nationalist rhetoric. Trump’s speech was actually relatively tame compared with his past two UNGA addresses, but the core of his hateful ideology remains nonetheless.