World update: September 25-26 2019

Stories from Egypt, Kashmir, Burkina Faso, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 25, 1396: The Crusade of Nicopolis

September 25, 1962: The North Yemen Civil War begins

September 26, 1799: A Republican French army under André Masséna outflanks and defeats a Russian-Austrian force at the Second Battle of Zürich. The French victory recovered what Masséna had lost in his defeat at the First Battle of Zürich in June and led to Russia’s decision to quit the Second Coalition. Shortly afterward Napoleon returned to Paris from Egypt and made himself First Consul, and the French Revolutionary Wars began to go in a whole new direction.

September 26, 1983: The Soviet Union’s early warning network determines that the United States has launched one intercontinental ballistic missile and recommends retaliating, but an air force lieutenant colonel named Stanislav Petrov, under the assumption that the US would not launch a nuclear first strike with a single weapon, decides that it must be malfunctioning. He made a similar determination when the system later showed four more US missiles in fight, and turned out to be correct—Soviet satellites were somehow misreading sunlight reflecting off of high altitude clouds as missiles. Petrov’s decision not to rely on the warning system probably single-handedly prevented World War III.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters in New York on Thursday that the US government has concluded that the Syrian government used chlorine gas in a May 19 attack in Idlib province. Some reports about this accusation are treating it as “confirmed,” even though Mike Pompeo is a serial liar working for another serial liar and it’s not as though the US government’s credibility on these kinds of things was especially high before they entered the picture.

Chlorine is considered a chemical weapon but it’s also considered a “dual-use” substance under international law since it has so many civilian applications, so it’s very difficult to limit its sale and possession. It’s also generally treated as a less serious violation of chemical weapons bans than the nerve agents that the Syrian government has previously been accused of using. Which is to say it’s unlikely this accusation is going to lead to Western airstrikes as previous CW accusations have, though if the Trump administration decides that a Syrian airstrike would also be a good way to slap back at Iran then it could conceivably use this as a justification.

TURKEY

An apparent roadside bomb struck a bus in the city of Adana on Wednesday, leaving at least five people wounded. No group has claimed responsibility.

IRAQ

After the most recent of his frequently wild public pronouncements—this time that Iraqi militias were going to create their own air force—deputy Popular Mobilization Forces leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis is apparently being shuffled off to a different job as PMF “chief of staff.” That gig seems to be more focused on coordinating among militias than about making policy or, well, talking to anybody about it. The thing is, as leader of the Kataib Hezbollah militia, Muhandis probably has more practical authority than his nominal boss, PMF head Falih Alfayyadh, so sidelining him isn’t as simple as it might seem. In fact, it’s likely those two rockets that were fired in the direction of the US embassy in Baghdad’s Green Zone earlier this week were fired by PMF fighters angry over the personnel change.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin chose incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form a new government on Wednesday, over a week after last Tuesday’s inconclusive snap vote and after unity coalition talks between Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz broke down. As Netanyahu has no clear path toward collecting the 61 seats needed to form a government, this decision amounts to Rivlin throwing up his hands in frustration and picking the guy who has marginally more parliamentary support. If Netanyahu fails to form a government in 28 days it will be up to Rivlin to decide whether to give him more time, give somebody else (presumably though not necessarily Gantz) a shot, or call for yet another election, which nobody seems to want.

Netanyahu’s 28 days will coincide with the countdown toward his possible indictment on corruption charges. The looming threat of an indictment is already going to make it more difficult for him to drum up support, to say nothing of what might happen if he actually is indicted. One scenario that Gantz apparently turned down involved Netanyahu taking the PM job with Gantz as his deputy in a substantially expanded role than what a typical deputy PM would have. Gantz would then have assumed Netanyahu’s responsibilities if the PM were “incapacitated” for any reason, including his legal woes, though crucially there doesn’t seem to have been any commitment required on Netanyahu’s part that he step aside in that situation.

EGYPT

Though it hasn’t been particularly large or threatening, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seems to be taking the recent round of protests against him very seriously:

Since a handful of surprise protests against President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi flared around Egypt last weekend, the largest since he came to power in 2014, the government has tightened its grip, arresting nearly 2,000 Egyptians, packing Cairo and other protest hot spots with security personnel and blocking news websites.

It is a crackdown harsh even by the standards of the Sisi era, when Egyptian jails have swollen with his political opponents, elections are predetermined and the opposition has been all but silenced, making shows of dissent extremely rare.

But no one knows if it will be enough to deter a second round of demonstrations that the protests’ original instigator, a self-proclaimed whistle-blower living in exile, has called for Friday.

Unlike elite liberals who have failed either to connect with the frustrations of lower class Egyptians or to organize themselves into an actual political force, the (alleged) whistle-blower, a military contractor named Mohamed Ali, appears to be undermining Sisi with the people the Egyptian dictator has cultivated as his base, according to Egyptian journalist Ola Salem. That’s presumably why Sisi is reacting so strongly to these new demonstrations. Sisi’s government has put riot police on the streets of Cairo ahead of Friday to make it clear that any new protests will be met violently, and the effect does appear to be discouraging people from turning out though it’s hard to know what impact that will have on crowd sizes.

SAUDI ARABIA

The US military is sending some 200 soldiers plus four radar systems and several Patriot air defense batteries to Saudi Arabia to help the country with the world’s third-largest military budget defend itself against drone strikes. That’s in raw terms, by the way—at least one estimate has the Saudis spending more on their military as a percentage of GDP than any other country. Can’t defend themselves though. The troop deployment is not as large as might have been expected but it may not be the end of it—there have also been reports that the US will beef up its naval presence in the region.

Meanwhile, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman would like you to know that he takes “all the responsibility” for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by his road agents in Istanbul last year. Though he means it in a sort of empty “the buck stops here” sense, and not in the sense that he, you know, was actually behind the murder.

IRAN

Iranian authorities are continuing to hold the Stena Impero despite earlier claims that the ship was legally cleared to leave Iran. The vessel’s owner, the Stena Bulk corporation, doesn’t seem to have any idea what’s going on or when (if) the ship and its remaining crew might be released. On Thursday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani told reporters that the ship “is going through the final court proceedings,” but he “predict[s]” it will be released.

Meanwhile, the International Atomic Energy Agency reports that Iranian officials have begun enriching uranium using centrifuges more advanced than the first generation models they’re permitted to use under the 2015 nuclear deal. It’s the latest in a series of violations that Iran has made, justifying them under provisions that allow one party to reduce its compliance with the agreement if another party—in this case the US, and increasingly Europe as well, as the Iranians see it—is already violating the deal. Iran’s advanced centrifuges can enrich uranium much more efficiently than the basic model and, if you believe Tehran is out to produce nuclear weapons at some point, constitute a serious concern. It’s a provocative step, though certainly less provocative than what the US did last year in basically tearing the accord up.

Rouhani also on Thursday made vague references to the idea that the US and Iran could discuss “other issues” beyond Iran’s nuclear program, provided the US rejoins the nuclear deal and lifts sanctions. He didn’t get into specifics, except to say that, as has been Tehran’s consistent position, they won’t negotiate over their missile program. His remarks echoed the message of his UN General Assembly speech the day before, when he again rejected the idea of negotiating “under pressure” and said he’d be amenable to broadening the scope of talks but that the US would have to “pay more” for any Iranian concessions beyond what was already included in the 2015 accord. He then left New York, his chance to meet personally with Donald Trump perhaps lost forever. I hope he can soldier on somehow.

The Trump administration took a couple of minor steps on Wednesday that could be collectively considered a little temper tantrum over the fact that Rouhani refused to meet with Trump on the sidelines of the UNGA. First, it sanctioned (over Beijing’s objections) several Chinese companies and individuals for violating sanctions against Iranian oil exports. Second, the administration barred several “senior” Iranian officials and their families from entering the United States. Pompeo made his remarks as the headline speaker at this year’s United Against a Nuclear Iran conference, an event that was otherwise most notable for featuring Mujahedin-e Khalq. The MEK, if you’re not familiar, is an Iranian exile group/cult that used to be designated a terrorist group by the United States, but has since lobbied its way off of that list and has taken a disturbingly prominent role in the administration’s Iran activities.

Trump, Pompeo, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin addressing reporters at the UN on Thursday (State Department via Wikimedia Commons)

On Thursday, Pompeo refused to say whether there’s a US-Iran prisoner swap in the works. The Trump administration on Tuesday deported an Iranian national who plead guilty to charges of funneling US technology to Iran, raising the possibility that a deal might be in the works for the Iranians to release Xiyue Wang, a US citizen who was arrested by Iranian authorities in 2016 while conducting research in Iran. There’s no specific indication that a swap in happening and I don’t know why Wang is being discussed in particular when Iran is holding several US nationals. The Iranians back in June did release a US permanent resident they’d been holding for four years, so this could be the reciprocal for that.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The Afghan government has deployed more than 100,000 police and military personnel to secure polling places across the country ahead of Saturday’s presidential election. The Taliban has threatened to disrupt the vote and has a history of attacking voters in previous elections.

KASHMIR

Journalist Anchal Vohra reports on the growing Kashmiri resistance to the Indian government’s military crackdown:

The one island of protest has been Anchar, a residential area in Srinagar. Residents have dug trenches, blocked entry points, and split up shifts to guard the district from the Indian Army’s arrest campaign. Ahmad, a political science student, said clashes were frequent. (Some names in this story, such as Ahmad’s, have been changed to protect the individuals mentioned.) “While soldiers fire tear gas shells and pellets, the boys pelt stones,” he said. “They have nothing else to stop the soldiers from entering our homes.” He pointed to a dozen men trying to rein in a yellow tarpaulin flapping in the wind to tie it to wooden poles planted on a lawn. He said this was to be their outpost, from which they would keep watch on soldiers patrolling the circumference of the neighborhood and issue warnings if they tried to come inside.

Elsewhere in Srinagar, Kashmiris say they remain determined not to accept India’s aggression as a fait accompli and have begun in their own way to resist. Kashmiris have shuttered their shops and businesses en masse. I witnessed one market after another across the valley close under self-imposed lockdowns. Only pharmacies and some general stores were open. The Kashmiris described it as a “silent protest.”

INDONESIA

More than 300 people were reportedly injured in protests that broke out across Indonesia on Tuesday and in several cases turned violent. Unlike the localized protests that have been going on lately in Papua and West Papua provinces, these demonstrations were fueled by a new law that limits the power of the country’s Corruption Eradication Commission. Most of the protesters were students.

NORTH KOREA

North Korean media on Friday said that the US failure to implement the measures to which Trump is supposed to have agreed, under the “joint statement” that emerged from his summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore last year, has put the future of US-North Korean diplomacy at risk. On Thursday, Mike Pompeo told reporters in New York that there was no possibility of holding working level talks with the North Koreans by the end of September but expressed some hope that talks would be held soon.

JAPAN

Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō signed a new trade agreement on the sidelines of the UNGA on Wednesday. The deal covers digital trade, agricultural goods, industrial goods…just about everything other than cars. So, uh, about that. Cars, or more specifically Trump’s threat to slap tariffs on Japanese auto imports, was and apparently remains the biggest issue in trade talks between Washington and Tokyo, and this agreement just punts on the whole issue. So this is definitely not the end of these negotiations.

AFRICA

SUDAN

The Sudanese government on Thursday announced that it’s closing its borders with both Libya and the Central African Republic, citing security concerns. It didn’t get any more specific than that apart from saying that “vehicles” have been illegally crossing the border from both countries.

LIBYA

US Africa Command says it killed at least 11 suspected Islamic State fighters in another airstrike near the southern Libyan town of Murzuq on Wednesday, following a previous strike in that region on September 19. The Murzuq area seems to be IS’s new Libyan home, at least as far as Africa Command is concerned, and the group may be taking advantage of a small inter-communal conflict there that’s being exacerbated by the much larger ongoing civil war to the north.

MALI

At least seven Malian soldiers were killed on Thursday when their convoy was struck by a bomb and subsequently ambushed in central Mali. Al-Qaeda affiliate Jamaʿat Nasr al-Islam wal-Muslimin was presumably responsible.

BURKINA FASO

University of Cincinnati professor Alex Thurston has published a new research paper on the breakdown of internal order in Burkina Faso:

This report argues that Burkina Faso is in the midst of a competition for power between the state, or rather one rump segment of Compaoré’s old personalist ruling network, and various emergent alternative power structures; this competition is both a driver and a result of the present insecurity. These alternative structures include not just the jihadists, but also the Koglweogo militia; what might be called the “critical left”; and various private business interests. Additionally, paralleling growing anti-French sentiments elsewhere in West Africa, Burkinabè interlocutors also expressed frustration with what they see as renewed French hegemony in Burkina Faso, a degree of French domination some Burkinabè feel has not been seen since the colonial period; one youth activist pointed out that Burkina Faso’s first President Maurice Yaméogo refused to give the French the kind of basing privileges that they enjoy today. No less a figure than Defense Minister Chérif Sy has publicly questioned France’s role in Burkina Faso and the Sahel.

NIGERIA

Islamic State’s West Africa branch says its fighters killed 14 soldiers in clashes in northeastern Nigeria on Wednesday. The Nigerian military has acknowledge some fighting did take place but hasn’t commented on the casualty figure.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

At LobeLog, Samuel Ramani examines Russia’s recent Middle Eastern “soft pivot” toward the UAE:

In Yemen, Russia has maintained a policy of strategic non-alignment since the start of the Saudi-led military intervention in 2015 and has not overhauled this approach in response to recent developments. Russia’s policy in Yemen has drawn closer to the UAE’s in recent months as Moscow has established closer relations with the Southern Transitional Council (STC). In March, the Russian Foreign Ministry was the first to authorize a formal invitation of the STC to Moscow. In a statement on August 10, Russia’s Deputy UN Ambassador Dmitry Polyansky refused to condemn the STC’s seizure of Aden or emphasize the importance of Yemeni unity, like the U.S. and European Union (EU) did after this event.

Russia’s conciliatory gestures towards the STC are squarely aimed at strengthening Moscow’s relationship with the UAE. Kirill Semenov, a Moscow-based defense analyst, stated that Russia’s engagement with the STC reflects the UAE’s rising importance as a Russian partner, and the reported presence of Russian private military companies in southern Yemen illustrates the potential for durable Russia-UAE cooperation. As Russia may have some interest in establishing a naval base or bases in southern Yemen, a strengthened relationship with the UAE would forestall potential frictions associated with entering Abu Dhabi’s sphere of influence. While Russia is unlikely to support southern Yemen’s independence outright, as this gesture would create serious frictions with Saudi Arabia, Moscow could view a facilitation of the STC’s entrance into UN-brokered peace negotiations as a way to curry the UAE’s favor, without jeopardizing its broader regional balancing strategy.

UKRAINE

The Ukraine story has mostly become about domestic US politics which really isn’t our lane here at FX. But at this point the Trump administration has released both a (scrubbed) summary of Donald Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the intelligence community whistleblower complaint about that phone call, and the contents seem to show pretty conclusively that Trump demanded that the Ukrainian government produce evidence of corruption on the part of former Vice President Joe Biden in return for US military aid. Trump supporters are insisting that nothing in the call is evidence of an obvious quid pro quo, but of course nobody, not even Trump, is dumb enough to make an obvious quid pro quo statement, and Ukraine is so dependent on US aid that Zelenskiy undoubtedly got the message anyway. Especially since the Trump administration allegedly made it very apparent to Zelenskiy’s advisers that their boss wouldn’t get a meeting with Trump unless he was prepared to talk about Biden.

The summary of the Trump-Zelenskiy call does not paint the new Ukrainian president in a terribly good light, and some of his political opponents have used it to attack him over his inexperience and inability to handle foreign affairs. Ukrainian voters, however—who elected Zelenskiy precisely because he had no experience in the thoroughly corrupt world of Ukrainian politics—seem inclined to give him time to learn on the job.

POLAND

New polling has Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party at 40 percent support ahead of the country’s October 13 general election. That leaves them well ahead of the main opposition Civic Coalition, at 28 percent, and slightly up from their ~37.5 percent performance in the 2015 election.

AUSTRIA

Austria is headed into a parliamentary election on Sunday, though the outcome isn’t really in doubt as former Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party is certain to win. The question is which Sebastian Kurz is going to emerge when it comes time to negotiate a new governing coalition. Kurz ran so hard to the right in 2017 that he undercut the far-right Freedom Party. Now that his coalition with that party has fallen apart, it seems this time around he’s running a more mainstream campaign and is planning to negotiate a three-party coalition with the center-right Neos party and the Austrian Green Party. The upshot here is that Kurz seems to have no firm political principles other than that he should be in power.

ITALY

I’m sure this is fine:

Global warming has put a glacier in the Italian Alps at risk of collapse, officials warned, leading to road closures, travel restrictions, and evacuations in the immediate vicinity.

Municipal officials issued the order after surveyors observed a significant increase in the sliding speed of the Planpincieux glacier, which rests on the Italian side of the Grand Jorasses peak. The mountain is one of several in the Mont Blanc massif, which runs through Italy, France and part of Switzerland.

Surveys had shown that the lower portion of the glacier was moving 19 to 23 inches per day, prompting the closure of certain roads and the precautionary evacuation of some residences in zones closest to the glacier. In safer areas, residents, workers and public officials and employees would be allowed to access the roads, but only emergency vehicles would be permitted to travel after dark.

SPAIN

New polling in Spain offers the first suggestion that Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist Party could take a political hit over his failure to negotiate a governing arrangement following April’s election. The survey ahead of the November 10 snap election has the Socialists at 27.2 percent, down from 28.7 percent in April. That would leave Sánchez with two fewer seats than he won in the previous vote and therefore even more dependent on other parties either for support or to form a coalition.

Part of the Socialists’ decline may be traceable to the rise of a new leftist party called Mas Pais, which has been created by Íñigo Errejón, one of the co-founders of Spain’s other leftist party, Podemos. The new party is polling at 5.9 percent in the latest survey and seems to be taking its support away from both Podemos and the Socialists. In theory the three left-to-center-left parties could form a coalition, but Errejón and Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias don’t like one another so that’s probably a long shot.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

Similar to the travel bans it imposed against top Iranian officials on Wednesday (see above), the Trump administration has also banned all Venezuelan officials at the vice-minister rank and above (if civilians) and the rank of colonel and above (if military), as well as all members of the country’s Constituent Assembly from entering the US. The ban applies to their families as well. The European Union, meanwhile, will take the comparatively more modest step of sanctioning seven members of President Nicolás Maduro’s circle on Friday. They’re accused of involvement in the disappearance and death of former Venezuelan naval officer Rafael Acosta, who died in government custody in June and may have been tortured to death.

HONDURAS

In yet another gross mockery of words and their meanings, the Honduran government on Wednesday signed its “safe third country” agreement with Washington, entitling the Trump administration to deposit asylum seekers at the southern border back on Honduran soil to await the results of their applications. There is no definition of the concept of “safe country” that pertains to Honduras, and it is a perversion of the very concept of “asylum” to force people to apply for asylum in the place from which they’re trying to obtain asylum. It is furthermore a grotesque violation of international law, not to mention basic human decency, to send asylum seekers back home before they’ve been given due process. Not that anybody in the Trump administration cares about such things, of course.

CUBA

The Trump administration has also put a travel ban on Raul Castro and his family members, though it seems unlikely that the head of Cuba’s Communist Party was planning a trip to see the Grand Canyon, or whatever, anytime soon. The Grand Canyon is very cool though! Anyway, Castro is being sanctioned for human rights violations and for supporting Maduro’s government.

UNITED STATES

Finally, for LobeLog, starting with his completely inconsistent approaches at an Iran policy I wrote about what seems to be the only through-line in Donald Trump’s foreign (and most of his domestic) policy:

So, then, what does he want, and how does he imagine that staying the course on a dismally failed policy will achieve it? Whether intentional or not, what now seems clear is that the maximum pressure campaign is both means and end. Cruelty has become the goal. And this isn’t just true with respect to Iran. In case after case—from North Korea to the Palestinian people to Venezuela to the southern U.S. border and inside the U.S. itself—the Trump administration has adopted policies marked by what can at best be described as callous indifference to the tremendous suffering it has caused.

Is that ultimately Trump’s objective? Simply to inflict as much misery on as many people as possible while he’s in office? Or is that the unintentional effect of electing a president who has no goals, or at least no idea how to accomplish them?

And sure enough, the Trump administration added to its record of cruelty on Thursday, proposing to reduce the annual cap on refugees admitted to the United States to 18,000 in 2020. That’s an offensively low number, down from 30,000 this year, 45,000 last year, and 50,000 in 2017. Each of those were also offensively low for the richest and also the best and kindest and most Godly nation that has ever existed, which is what we’re always being told that the United States is. There’s no purpose to it. Cutting back to 18,000 refugees isn’t going to make the country any safer, or better. It just makes us pettier and crueler. Which really does seem like the point.