World update: September 28-29 2019

Stories from Syria, Saudi Arabia, Austria, and more

Shanah Tovah to those who are celebrating the Jewish New Year!

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 27, 1669: The Siege of Candia ends

September 27, 1996: The Afghan Taliban seize control of Kabul from forced commanded by Ahmad Shah Massoud, overthrowing the Islamic State of Afghanistan and replacing it with the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.

September 28, 1538: The Battle of Preveza

September 28, 1961: A group of Syrian military officers carries out a coup that pulls Syria out of the United Arab Republic, the political union that Syria and Egypt had formed in 1958. In addition to ending the UAR, the coup kicked off about 18 months of political chaos in Syria that finally ended (well, sort of ended) with the March 1963 coup that brought the Baath Party to power.

September 29, 1227: Pope Gregory IX excommunicates Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II for repeatedly breaking promises to go on Crusade. Frederick, who had already engineered his own succession as “King of Jerusalem,” subsequently did go on Crusade, for which Gregory excommunicated him again since he was now acting without permission. Frederick nevertheless led the Sixth Crusade, with the Church advising people not to join him because he was an excommunicate, and wound up negotiating a very tenuous handover of the city of Jerusalem.

September 29, 1918: Bulgaria negotiates its World War I surrender, the Armistice of Salonica, with the Allies. That same day, Germany approached the Allies to begin talks on what would become the Armistice of 11 November 1918. The combined news in turn motivated the Ottomans to begin talks on their own armistice.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem addressed the United Nations General Assembly on Saturday (his boss, Bashar al-Assad, declined to attend for obvious reasons) with a demand for foreign forces to leave Syria. Or, well, for some foreign forces to leave Syria. Turkish and US forces, specifically. Moallem referred to their “illegal military presence in northern Syria,” and if you can spot the lie there let me know because I’m not seeing it. His comments reinforce the notion that eventually somebody’s going to have to address the fact that Turkey is quietly attempting to annex big chunks of Syria with US acquiescence.

US analysts want to remind you that you should still be afraid of al-Qaeda:

American counterterrorism officials are voicing increased alarm about a Qaeda affiliate in Syria that they say is plotting attacks against the West by exploiting the chaotic security situation in the country’s northwest and the protection inadvertently afforded by Russian air defenses shielding Syrian government forces allied with Moscow.

The rise of this latest Qaeda branch in Syria, as well as the operations of other Qaeda affiliates in West Africa, Somalia, Yemen and Afghanistan, underscore the terrorist group’s enduring threat despite the death of Osama bin Laden and being largely eclipsed in recent years by the Islamic State, or ISIS, as the terrorist group of choice of global jihadis.

The new Qaeda branch, called Hurras al-Din, emerged in early 2018 after several factions broke away from a larger affiliate in Syria. It is the successor to the Khorasan Group, a small but dangerous organization of hardened senior Qaeda operatives that Ayman al-Zawahri, Al Qaeda’s leader, sent to Syria to plot attacks against the West.

Nobody has satisfactorily established that the “Khorasan Group” ever actually existed, but let’s leave that aside. Hurras al-Din consists, basically, of those Jabhat al-Nusra members who refused to go along when Nusra severed its links to al-Qaeda back in 2016. At the time there was reason to believe the separation was only on paper, but the subsequent discovery of some internal al-Qaeda communications suggests that it was real and actually a bit acrimonious. Some Nusra fighters refused to disavow al-Qaeda and they’ve since consolidated into this other group and begun recruiting new members. That’s it. That’s all it is.

There’s no evidence that Hurras al-Din is plotting attacks against Western targets, and the reason I know that is because it says so in that same article up there telling us to be afraid of it. Of course, you have to stick around until paragraph 17 to find that out and by then you’re already supposed to be too terrified to think straight. There’s no evidence that Hurras al-Din could carrying out attacks against the West even if it wanted to do so, and seeing as how it’s operating in an active war zone I suspect its members have bigger fish to fry at the moment, their crafty use of Russian air defenses notwithstanding.

Anyway, just remember to be afraid, always, because if you aren’t constantly petrified of shady foreign menaces then you might start asking uncomfortable questions about things like the Pentagon budget and our national priorities.

YEMEN

So back on Friday, Saudi officials reportedly agreed to undertake a “limited” ceasefire covering parts of northern Yemen, including Sanaa. This was in response to last week’s Houthi announcement that they were going to stop launching missile and/or drone attacks against Saudi Arabia. The Houthis, however, rejected the Saudi offer and demanded a complete cessation of hostilities and an end to the Saudi “blockade” of the seaport at Hudaydah. And then on Sunday they made an extremely bold claim:

Houthi rebels in Yemen say they have killed 500 Saudi soldiers, captured a further 2,000 and seized a convoy of Saudi military vehicles.

The extraordinary claims at a press conference on Sunday, involving still photographs and inconclusive videos of captured soldiers, many not in uniform, could not be corroborated, and there was no independent confirmation from Saudi Arabia.

The Houthis, showing pictures of upturned Saudi vehicles and immobilised convoys, claimed the attacks had occurred over the past three days in the southern Najran region of Saudi Arabia, which borders Yemen, and would continue with greater intensity.

“Operation Victory from God is the largest military one since the brutal aggression began. The enemy suffered heavy losses … and wide swathes of territory were liberated in only a few days,” said the Houthi spokesman, Mohammed Abdul Salam.

So, OK. Al Jazeera has posted parts of the video:

(I’m pretty sure the narrator means “September 25,” not “August 25,” but who really knows anymore. Time is a flat circle.)

I have…questions. Obviously the biggest is whether this attack really took place or the Houthis are lying, but while nothing in that video is conclusive and their claims haven’t been corroborated, this would be a really strange thing to just make up out of nothing. I’m also curious about those prisoners. The Saudis have worked to some degree with northern Yemeni tribal elements that aren’t on board with the Houthi project as well as with the Islamist Islah party, which has most of its support in the north. Are those the people the Houthis claim to have taken prisoner here? Or are they Yemeni soldiers affiliated with the government in the south? There have been reports of Yemeni soldiers being captured by the Houthis in Yemen’s Saada province—are the Houthis fudging a little and presenting prisoners captured in Yemen as though they were captured across the border? Obviously at the moment there are many more questions than answers.

People in northern Yemen are reportedly suffering an acute fuel shortage, possibly as a result of tighter government regulations on imports. The shortage threatens to affect basic services as well as the distribution of food aid across northern Yemen. The pro-government coalition denies that its regulations are restricting fuel imports and has accused the Houthis of “fabricating” the shortage.

TURKEY

The Turkish government says its security forces shot down a drone that repeatedly crossed into Turkish airspace from Syria on Sunday. There’s been no more word on the drone’s origins or intentions.

IRAQ

Another facility near the Syrian border belonging to an Iranian-aligned Iraqi militia was attacked via airstrike late Friday. Presumably Israel, which has struck multiple Iraqi militia targets over the past few months, was responsible. No casualties have been reported.

Speaking of the Syrian border, the Iraqi government announced on Friday that it will reopen the Qaim-Bukamal border crossing on Monday. That crossing has been closed for several years, mostly because both sides of it were controlled by the Islamic State. Iraqi forces retook Qaim and the Syrian army retook Bukamal in 2017, but the border crossing has been limited to military traffic since then.

LEBANON

Major protests gripped several Lebanese cities on Sunday as demonstrators expressed anger over corruption and the country’s perpetually weak economy. Lebanon’s debt and economic weakness have weakened the Lebanese pound, which means that businesses and individuals have had trouble obtaining US dollars, for example, at the official government exchange rate. Which in turn makes it harder to import anything, and that impacts people trying to obtain even basic goods.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

It was just on Wednesday that Israeli President Reuven Rivlin gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first crack at forming a government in the wake of Israel’s snap election earlier this month, and already it looks like Netanyahu is ready to throw in the towel. The only obvious path to a majority coalition is a unity government between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party, but talks on establishing such an arrangement are going nowhere and Netanyahu may want to get out of the spotlight quickly and let Gantz struggle to form a government instead.

Netanyahu is reportedly insisting on two conditions that are unacceptable to Gantz—one, that Likud’s far-right coalition partners also get to join any unity government, and two, that Netanyahu gets to serve as prime minister (with the possibility of rotating the office to Gantz at some point). The two leaders are expected to meet on Wednesday for one more attempt at reaching an accord before Netanyahu goes back to Rivlin and admits defeat. It’s looking increasingly like Israel may be headed for a third election even though that’s the outcome that nobody—least of all Israeli voters—seems to want.

EGYPT

Egyptian security officials say their forces killed 15 militants during a raid on a “farm” in northern Sinai, though as usual they did not say when this alleged battle took place. Insert obligatory reminder about Egypt’s (again alleged) proclivities toward summary execution here. On Friday, Islamic State fighters reportedly killed at least seven Egyptian soldiers and one civilian in an “ambush” in northern Sinai.

Egyptian activist Alaa Abdel Fattah, one of the leaders of the 2011 Arab Spring protest movement that ousted then-President Hosni Mubarak, was reportedly arrested on Sunday. Abdel Fattah had only recently been released after serving five years for violating Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s charming ban on public protests. He’s now one of upwards of 2000 people arrested in recent days since the outbreak of a small protest movement against Sisi’s corruption.

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi Major General Abdulaziz al-Fagham, the chief bodyguard for King Salman and his predecessor, King Abdullah, has been murdered in what Saudi authorities are calling a “personal dispute.” Details are sparse, perhaps deliberately so, but the kingdom’s official story is that Fagham was killed by a “friend” who also wounded a foreign national and a Saudi national. This friend later allegedly wound up in a shootout with security forces in which he was killed and five Saudi personnel wounded. I suppose there’s no reason to think the official story is false except inasmuch as these are the same people who spent nearly three weeks last year insisting that Jamal Khashoggi had happily departed their Istanbul consulate and just vanished into thin air when they knew full well that they’d murdered him. Some journalists on Twitter have been suggesting that Fagham was recently sacked, adding to the mystery, but there’s no confirmation of that.

A large fire broke out on Sunday at Saudi Arabia’s Haramain rail station in Jeddah. The Haramain is a high-speed rail line connecting Jeddah, the point of entry for most pilgrims entering the kingdom, and the Islamic holy cities of Mecca and Medina. At least five people were injured. There’s also no reason to think any foul play was involved here, but at this point I don’t know that you can rule anything out when it comes to the Saudis.

Oh, and Mohammad bin Salman did 60 Minutes on Sunday evening. In the only bit sticks out as being of interest, he took “full responsibility” for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi while probably lying about his involvement in the crime itself.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

Predictions that Afghanistan’s presidential election on Saturday would be marked mostly by low turnout appear, if anything, to have understated things. There are still some ballots to be counted, but at this point it’s looking like turnout was somewhere in the neighborhood of 25 percent of Afghanistan’s 9.67 million registered voters. That’s over four million fewer people than voted in 2014. It will be three weeks before preliminary results are known and official results won’t be announced until November 7. President Ashraf Ghani is hoping for a big mandate to strengthen his position ahead of peace talks with the Taliban, but with turnout that low this election isn’t going to produce a mandate for anything except maybe voter apathy. On the plus side, the Taliban’s threats to disrupt the election violently seem mostly to have fizzled out. Two people were killed in a bombing in Nangarhar province and 16 wounded in a bombing in Kandahar province, but despite claims of dozens of other attacks none of them seem to have been particularly impactful.

PAKISTAN

Three people were killed on Saturday in a bombing in the town of Chaman, near the Afghan border in Baluchistan province. One of the dead was a senior figure in the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazl political party who may have been the target. It’s unclear who was responsible.

KASHMIR

Indian soldiers killed three insurgents in Jammu and Kashmir state’s Jammu region on Saturday. One soldier was also killed in the operation.

INDONESIA

Indonesian authorities may not be telling the truth about Monday’s violent demonstration in Papua province:

Witness testimony from Wamena, the largest town in Papua’s remote Baliem Valley, run in stark contrast to the Indonesian authorities’ official account.

Indonesian police have said 31 people died in the racism-fuelled riot, but claim the majority of victims were non-Papuan migrants who died from stab and arrow wounds, and from being trapped inside burning buildings.

But since Monday’s riot, the Guardian has spoken to several witnesses who suggest not only that the death toll may be significantly higher than the official toll, but also that the Indonesian police may have been involved.

The Guardian says it has the names of 65 people hospitalized with gunshot wounds, which would likely have been caused by the police, and that the death toll was likely over 40.

CHINA

With China’s National Day approaching on Tuesday, this weekend’s Hong Kong protests turned violent again. On Saturday, demonstrators blocked a road near the People’s Liberation Army’s Hong Kong headquarters. They broke government office windows and threw rocks at police, who responded with tear gas and water cannons. The violence worsened on Sunday, with at least a few reports of protesters throwing molotov cocktails at police and government buildings and with other protesters erecting barricades and setting fires in the streets of central Hong Kong city.

AFRICA

HORN OF AFRICA

The International Crisis Group looks at the spillover from Middle Eastern conflicts, which is hitting the Horn of Africa in particular:

For political, economic and ideological reasons, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Turkey are locked in a push-pull to set the rules for a Middle Eastern region long in turmoil. Two overlapping rivalries drive and define this engagement: a split within the Gulf pitting Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt against Qatar and Turkey; and competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

In both those struggles, the main rivals see Africa as a new arena for competition and building alliances, particularly as the Horn is poised for strong economic growth over the next generation. With their significant financial resources, the Gulf countries and Turkey see a chance to adjust the future economic and political landscape of the Red Sea basin in their favour. They are all expanding their physical and political presence to forge new partnerships and ring-fence their enemies – most often one another.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

At least 20,000 people gathered in Moscow on Sunday to protest for the release of people arrested for participating in protests earlier this year. Those previous demonstrations, over allegations that Russian authorities were trying to fix local elections, grew until they’d become the largest protests seen in Russia since at least the 2011-2013 demonstrations around Vladimir Putin’s return to the Russian presidency in 2012. Many participants were given excessive prison sentences for their trouble, motivating Sunday’s outburst.

Russia’s foreign minister used his UNGA speech on Friday as an opportunity to get a few things off his chest:

In his speech before the U.N. General Assembly, Sergei Lavrov blamed the countries that declared themselves winners of the Cold War between the U.S. and the former Soviet Union for the current challenges facing the world, and for the increasing fragmentation of the international community.

He pointedly scorned much of the “West,” a term Russian officials typically use to refer to the United States and its traditional allies in Europe. He accused them of manipulating their citizens, disseminating false information, and preventing journalists from doing their work — all charges that the West has long lobbed at the Russian government and its predecessor, the Soviet Union.

“It is hard for the West to accept seeing its centuries-long dominance in world affairs diminishing,” Lavrov said. “Leading Western countries are trying to impede the development of the polycentric world, to recover their privileged positions, to impose standards of conduct based on the narrow Western interpretation of liberalism on others.”

ClickHole already covered this

Lavrov further charged that the West is hypocritical about applying its values, saying that “when it is advantageous, the right of the peoples to self-determination has significance. And when it is not, it is declared ‘illegal.’” He’s certainly not the best messenger for this message, but that doesn’t make the message wrong.

AUSTRIA

As expected, former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s People’s Party has emerged from Sunday’s election as the big winner, taking 37.1 percent of the vote to finish once again as the largest party in the Austrian parliament. That’s not enough for a sole majority, though, so the real intrigue will revolve around what Kurz decides to do next. He could align with the far-right Freedom Party again, though there may be some lingering bad blood there—the acrimonious collapse of the previous People’s-Freedom coalition in May is what forced Sunday’s vote. Freedom saw its support drastically decline in Sunday’s election but it still controls enough seats to form a two-party majority coalition with Kurz. A three-way coalition with the Greens and the center-right Neos party may be slightly more likely, but ultimately it’s up to Kurz. His apparent lack of any strongly held beliefs apart from “I should be chancellor” gives him some flexibility in these situations.

AMERICAS

HAITI

Ongoing protests in Haiti reached something of a crescendo on Friday when large crowds looted stories, banks, and government offices and police used tear gas and live ammunition to break things up. The demonstrators are after President Jovenel Moïse’s resignation over the country’s bleak economic conditions and allegations of both corruption and human rights abuses against his government. Moïse wound up canceling his trip to the UNGA due to the protests and instead delivered a national address calling for a unity government to try to appease everybody. It doesn’t seem to have worked.

UNITED STATES

The White House has apparently been keeping records of Donald Trump’s interactions with foreign officials under wraps after an uncomfortable incident during his first few months in office:

President Trump told two senior Russian officials in a 2017 Oval Office meeting that he was unconcerned about Moscow’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election because the United States did the same in other countries, an assertion that prompted alarmed White House officials to limit access to the remarks to an unusually small number of people, according to three former officials with knowledge of the matter.

The comments, which have not been previously reported, were part of a now-infamous meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, in which Trump revealed highly classified information that exposed a source of intelligence on the Islamic State. He also said during the meeting that firing FBI Director James B. Comey the previous day had relieved “great pressure” on him.

A memorandum summarizing the meeting was limited to a few officials with the highest security clearances in an attempt to keep the president’s comments from being disclosed publicly, according to the former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Does this really matter? I mean, it could, if burying this information keeps it from getting to policy-makers who need it. But probably not. Instead I’d suggest it’s relevant more as another sign of Trump’s deteriorating faculties, something that definitely does matter.