World update: September 3 2019

Stories from Yemen, China, the United Kingdom, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

August 31, 1907: Britain and Russia sign the Anglo-Russian Convention, which closes arguably the last chapter in their “Great Game” rivalry in Asia, at least until the 1917 Russian Revolution. The two empires, having already agreed to mark Afghanistan as the frontier between their domains, further agreed to divide Iran into spheres of influence (Russian in the north, British in the south), to recognize Afghanistan as part of Britain’s sphere of influence, and to agree mutually not to interfere in Tibetan affairs.

August 31, 1957: Malaysian Independence Day

September 1, 1880: A decisive British victory at the Battle of Kandahar ends the Second Anglo-Afghan War. British authorities deposed Afghan Emir Ayub Khan and replaced him with his more agreeable cousin, Abdur Rahman Khan.

September 1, 1939: Nazi Germany invades Poland, kicking off World War II.

September 1, 1969: The 1969 Libyan Coup

September 2, 31 BCE (or thereabouts): Octavian’s forces decisively defeat the the forces of Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the naval Battle of Actium. Actium effectively marked the end of the war between Octavian and Antony, as both Antony and Cleopatra subsequently retreated to Alexandria and eventually committed suicide after Octavian besieged the city. His rival gone, Octavian became the first emperor of Rome, taking the name/title Augustus to mark his new status.

September 2, 1898: A joint British-Egyptian army defeats a Mahdist Sudanese army at the Battle of Omdurman. Though the Mahdist War continued for another year the battle left Britain in unquestioned control over Sudan. It also highlighted the potency of modern weaponry, as the British-Egyptian force was outnumbered roughly 2-to-1 but massacred the Mahdists because of its edge in firepower.

September 2, 1192: The Third Crusade Ends

September 2, 1945: The Japanese government formally surrenders, ending combat in the Pacific Theater of World War II.

September 3, 301: The tiny nation of San Marino, the oldest republic in existence, is founded by Saint Marinus when, looking to escape Diocletian’s persecution of Christians, he builds a church atop Monte Titano, east of Florence Italy.

September 3, 863: A Byzantine army defeats an joint invasion by the Emirate of Melitene and the Paulicians of Tephrike at the Battle of Lalakaon. During the battle the Byzantines managed to kill both the Emir of Melitene, Umar al-Aqta, and the leader of the Paulicians, Karbeas, eliminating in one fell swoop two of the biggest threats they faced on their eastern frontier. The victory was important in kicking off what would be a two-century period of almost uninterrupted Byzantine dominance that ended with their defeat at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071.

September 3, 1260: The Battle of Ayn Jalut

September 3, 1783: The signing of the Treaty of Paris ends the American Revolution with the United States now recognized as an independent nation.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Two motorcycle bombs exploded in the Syrian town of Azaz (near the Turkish border) on Tuesday, killing at least one person, and a third such bomb was discovered and defused before it could go off. Azaz is controlled by Turkey-backed rebels so there’s good reason to believe the Kurdish YPG militia was responsible, though Islamic State can’t be ruled out either. Elsewhere, air defenses reportedly shot down drones launched by rebels in northwestern Syria against the Khmeimim air base in Latakia province. As Khmeimim is operated by the Russian military it’s unclear whether these were Syrian air defenses or Russian air defenses, which admittedly may be a distinction without a difference.

On Saturday, the US military conducted an airstrike against what it says was an “al-Qaeda” facility in a town in northern Idlib province that killed at least 40 people according to monitors. It’s unclear whether the Pentagon meant Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which has cut ties with al-Qaeda, or some other group. What seems clearer is that the strike was ill-timed given that it occurred in the early hours of a badly needed Russian-Syrian ceasefire in northwestern Syria. The Russian government criticized the strike for threatening the ceasefire and said the US conducted it without warning either Russia or Turkey, the two countries who are supposed to be responsible for deescalating the northwest Syrian front.

Meanwhile, the Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya-1, which has been meandering about the eastern Mediterranean since being released from Gibraltar last month, now appears to have turned off its transponder while just west of the Syrian coast. It’s likely going to offload its cargo to the Syrians, if not in port then by making a ship-to-ship transfer at sea. When they released the tanker, British officials claimed that the Iranians had promised it would not deliver its oil to Syria.

The Guardian’s Bethan McKernan has done some first-hand reporting from inside Syria’s al-Hawl displacement camp. Al-Hawl now holds tens of thousands of people who either fled the Syrian Democratic Forces’ offensive against IS or were captured during it, and because the SDF doesn’t have the manpower to effectively manage the camp it’s effectively the only place left in Syria where IS still functions openly. IS remnants are angry over the group’s losses and over the wretched conditions within the camp, and that seems to be making for a very toxic combination.

YEMEN

The Saudis did another oopsie on Sunday, bombing what they claim was a “legitimate military target” in Dhamar province that turned out actually to be a prison. You’re not supposed to bomb those, but then you’re also not supposed to bomb schools, hospitals, funeral homes, wedding parties, school buses, markets, and lots of other things the Saudis have regularly bombed anyway. You’re also not supposed to starve people to death as a military tactic, but that’s not stopping Riyadh either. The prison housed somewhere around 170 detainees and at last count only around 40 were being treated for injuries, so it’s assumed the rest are dead though recovery operations are ongoing.

While we’re on the subject, and you may want to sit down for this, a new report to the United Nations Human Rights Council says that the US, the UK, and France may all be complicit in Saudi war crimes in Yemen. I know, I was shocked as well. Apparently you can’t even blithely sell weapons to a country whose military is wantonly and repeatedly slaughtering civilians without some snowflake making a fuss. In fairness, the report also leveled war crimes charges at the Houthis and suggested Iran may be complicit in those.

The Saudis have also deployed more soldiers to southern Yemen in an effort to contain fighting there between Southern Transitional Council separatists and the Yemeni government. The STC remains in control of most of Aden but the situation seems to have stabilized in the surrounding provinces for now.

TURKEY

Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party is looking to kick out a founding member, former Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, over his repeated criticisms of the party and of its leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Davutoğlu has already been taking steps toward forming a new political party alongside several other AKP founders who have since been purged from the party as Erdoğan has consolidated his control over it.

LEBANON

The Israeli government on Tuesday accused Hezbollah of setting up a factory to make precision-guided missiles in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. The charge, which came after a cross-border exchange of fire between Hezbollah and the Israeli military (see below), hints at potentially further Israeli strikes on Lebanon. Hezbollah has consistently denied operating such facilities in Lebanon while nevertheless consistently claiming that it does have a large stockpile of precision-guided missiles.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

On Sunday, Hezbollah fired a couple (two or three, according to the Israeli military) guided anti-tank missiles across the border at an Israeli military position just across the border near Avivim. It claims that it destroyed one Israeli military vehicle, killing or wounding all those inside. The Israeli military denies this, claiming that it carried out a fake medical evacuation in order to convince Hezbollah that it had hit something so that its forces would stand down. Sure, OK. The Israelis also responded with helicopter strikes and “over 100” artillery shells, which don’t seem to have caused any casualties in Lebanon. It’s more likely that the “fake medical evacuation” story is itself fake, intended to minimize any Israeli public demand for a more forceful retaliation.

Hezbollah’s strike was apparently its response to an Israeli drone strike on southern Beirut last month and/or to Israeli attacks that have been killing its fighters in Syria, and as the border has been relatively quiet since Sunday it would appear that may be the end of it. For now.

On the plus side, all this heated back-and-forth with Hezbollah seems to be doing exactly what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends it to do—strengthening him politically ahead of this month’s Knesset election. Since Netanyahu is currently pulling double duty as defense minister, he’s empowered to conduct military escapades all across the Middle East in the name of scaring voters into giving him yet another term as PM. The politicization of those escapades is apparent in the way that Netanyahu has started speaking more openly about them, which contravenes Israel’s traditional policy of silence when it comes to military operations.

SAUDI ARABIA

The Saudi government has been undertaking a bit of a shakeup in recent days in preparation for a renewed effort to take Saudi Aramco, its massive state-owned oil company, public. Energy Minister Khalid al-Falih, who is apparently not terribly thrilled by the thought of an Aramco IPO, has had his position downgraded twice in less than a week. First, on Friday Falih had his portfolio drastically shrunk when the Saudis created a new “Natural Resources Ministry” and put a pro-IPO businessman, Bandar al-Khorayef, in charge of it. Falih, previously minister of energy, industry, and mineral resources, is now just minister of energy. Then, on Tuesday, Falih found himself ousted as chairman of Aramco and replaced by Yasir al-Rumayyan, head of the kingdom’s public investment fund. The investment fund is where Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman envisions most of the proceeds from an Aramco IPO going.

IRAN

The French government is pushing ahead with its plan to offer Iran a $15 billion line of credit via INSTEX, the European “special purpose vehicle” that’s designed to shield Iranian commerce from the impact of US sanctions. The plan is contingent on Donald Trump issuing appropriate sanctions waivers to allow it to go forward, though, and while he’s suggested he would be open to doing so, this is Donald Trump we’re talking about. Anything that comes out of his mouth is subject to immediate and total contradiction at any time. In return for the credit line the Iranians will be expected to return to full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, but for now they’re headed in the opposite direction. Tehran says it will announce further reductions in its commitment to the accord on Thursday if European leaders haven’t taken steps to salvage it by then.

ASIA

GEORGIA

Georgia’s ruling Georgian Dream party has nominated Interior Minister Giorgi Gakharia to be the country’s next prime minister. He’ll be replacing Mamuka Bakhtadze, who resigned on Monday claiming that he’s “accomplished” his “mission.” I believe the Simpsons already did that one:

What it really means is that Georgian Dream party leader Bidzina Ivanishvili, the richest and therefore most powerful man in Georgia, fired him. There’s no danger of Gakharia not getting parliamentary approval, but he’s not terribly well liked by the Georgian public or opposition parties, owing to his ministry’s brutal handling of protesters back in June.

AFGHANISTAN

The Taliban bombed the “Green Village” residential compound in Kabul on Monday evening, killing at least 16 people and wounding over 100 more. The attack led to renewed calls for the closure of the compound, which mostly houses international organizations and is therefore a prime target for terrorists. It also raised new questions about the negotiations between the Taliban and the US, which have progressed as far as the draft agreement stage. The deal, as it stands, calls for the US to withdraw 5400 soldiers within 135 days of its signing, followed by the phased withdrawal of the rest of the 14,000 US soldiers in the country. The length of that withdrawal is unknown but it will presumably be tied to certain milestones that the Taliban is obliged to meet.

US negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad cautioned that Trump will have to approve the deal before it can proceed. He’s currently in Kabul trying to convince Afghan President Ashraf Ghani that he’s not being sold out, but that may be a tall order. One of the Taliban’s obligations will likely be engaging in direct negotiations with the Afghan government. Over the weekend the insurgent group launched sustained attacks on the cities of Kunduz and Pul-e Khumri in northern Afghanistan, likely in an effort to strengthen its negotiation position ahead of those talks.

MYANMAR

The Myanmar government is reportedly coercing the remaining Rohingya in the country to accept “National Verification Cards” in lieu of citizenship. In fact, these NVCs explicitly mark the Rohingya—who the government maintains are undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh despite considerable evidence that they’ve been there for at least a couple of centuries—as foreigners, presumably denying them the legal protections that might come with citizenship. None of the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in neighboring Bangladesh have been willing to return to Myanmar without guarantees of their security, starting with citizenship.

CHINA

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam apparently told a group of business leaders last week that she would like to resign over the “huge havoc” she’s caused in failing to end ongoing protests over a now-suspended extradition bill. Officials in Beijing are preventing her resignation, but she also said she has “very limited” ability to resolve the situation both because of the nature of her office and because Chinese authorities have largely taken control of what has become a serious national security situation for them. Nevertheless, Lam assured her audience that the Chinese government is not planning to roll tanks into downtown Hong Kong to suppress the protests, saying that “they know that the price would be too huge to pay.”

Protests continued over the weekend and again escalated into violent clashes with police, with protesters throwing gasoline bombs and police employing tear gas and water cannons. The Saturday demonstrations began peacefully but were held in defiance of a government prohibition. Another round of protests on Monday, mostly involving students who skipped school for the occasion, went mostly peacefully. There were isolated reports of clashes between protesters and police in the evening but nothing like the weekend’s battles. However, things seemed to escalate again overnight amid reports of police firing beanbag rounds at protesters.

A new report suggests that the Belt and Road Initiative is going to make it almost impossible for human civilization to avoid broiling itself:

The Tsinghua Center for Finance and Development said that the 126 Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries excluding China currently account for 28 percent of manmade emissions.

It modelled the effects of different approaches to the development of megaports, pipelines, train lines and highways in 17 BRI countries.

It found that countries such as Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia would need to lower carbon emissions 68 percent by 2050 compared to current trajectories in order to keep the world on course to 2C of warming.

"We have a business-as-usual scenario that says if you continue the way you are then even if every other country on the planet — which includes US, Europe, China and India — goes on a 2C pathway, this is still going to blow the carbon budget," said Simon Zadek, senior visiting fellow at the Tsinghua Center.

AFRICA

ALGERIA

Ahmed Gaid Salah, head of the Algerian army and really in many respects of Algeria itself, now says that he would like to see a presidential election sometime before the end of this year. Algeria has been without a genuine president since Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned in April, and the protests that forced him from office have continued, demanding a wholesale change in the country’s leadership before any new election is held. No such change has occurred and Salah has no interest in seeing it occur, since he would be one of the people who would have to go in such a scenario. Salah’s public pronouncements like this aren’t really intended for the Algerian public so much as they are for Algeria’s interim government, which only remains in place because Salah and the army allow it.

MALI

At least 14 people were killed in central Mali on Tuesday when the bus they were riding ran over a landmine. No group has claimed responsibility but West Africa’s al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates have both been active in that region.

SOUTH AFRICA

Mobs have been attacking foreign-owned businesses in the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria for the past several days. At least five people have been killed and many shops heavily damaged or destroyed in the violence. Authorities so far have arrested over 90 people accused of involvement in these attacks.

EUROPE

GERMANY

German authorities discovered and defused unexploded World War II bombs in the cities of Cologne (Monday evening) and Hannover (Tuesday morning). The operations required the evacuation of some over 15,000 people in Hannover and nearly 5000 in Cologne.

ITALY

Italy’s pending Five Star-Democratic Party governing coalition cleared what may be its final major hurdle on Tuesday when nearly 80 percent of Five Star’s rank and file membership voted to go forward with the arrangement, presumably avoiding the need for an early election (at least for now). Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte can now select a cabinet and present it to President Sergio Mattarella, perhaps as soon as Wednesday. His government will then need to win confidence votes in both chambers of the Italian parliament, but as Five Star and the PD together control a majority of seats in both bodies that’s not expected to be a problem. The two parties issued their joint policy agenda before the vote, calling for spending increases and new programs to help spur economic development in southern Italy.

SPAIN

Spain, on the other hand, appears headed for a new election. The leftist Podemos Party has rejected Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’s latest collaboration offer, which would have formed a minority government involving just his own Socialist Party, but offered Podemos some cooperation on policy and some sub-cabinet level offices in return for its parliamentary support. Podemos is insisting on a coalition that would give it a direct role in the government. Sánchez, who has been governing in a caretaker role since April’s election, says he still wants to reach a deal to form a government and avoid another vote, but that seems highly unlikely at this point.

PORTUGAL

New polling suggests that Portugal’s Socialist Party may win a sole majority in that country’s parliamentary election in October. Prime Minister António Costa’s party stands at 43.6 percent, just shy of the 44-45 percent it usually takes to win a majority of seats once all the parties that fail to clear the minimum vote threshold are removed from the equation.

UNITED KINGDOM

As for the UK, well, things are really going fantastically. New Prime Minister Boris Johnson held his first vote as PM on Tuesday, lost it, and promptly called for a new election. The vote was over control of the parliamentary schedule, and Johnson’s defeat now allows MPs to consider an opposition bill that would require Johnson to seek an extension to the UK’s Brexit deadline if he’s unable to reach agreement on a new Brexit deal with the European Union by October 31. A group of 21 Conservative Party MPs joined opposition parties in voting to open consideration on the bill. Johnson, who insists that he needs the leverage of a possible “no deal” exit to force the EU to bend the knee to him even though there’s no evidence that the EU would be willing to do so under any circumstance, promised to boot all 21 rebels out of the party, though he may have a fight on his hands to do so.

Things got so bad for Johnson that one ex-Tory MP switched parties, to the Liberal Democrats, while Johnson was speaking ahead of the vote, costing him his parliamentary majority mid-speech.

Johnson needs a two-thirds vote in the House of Commons in order to force a new election, which he’s hoping with strengthen the hardline pro-Brexit faction in parliament. But while Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has said he’s eager to go back to the polls, he also now says he won’t allow his MPs to vote for a new election unless/until the measure blocking a no deal Brexit passes. Assuming Corbyn can hold most of his party together he can prevent Johnson’s election or at least delay it.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

The renewal of Colombia’s war against the FARC rebel group is already spilling over into Venezuela. A group of former and now current FARC rebels announced last week that they’re resuming their armed conflict with the Colombian government in a video that may have been filmed in Venezuela, where some disaffected elements of the rebel movement are believed to be milling about near the Colombian border. Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Tuesday put his armed forces on alert against a possible invasion by the Colombian military to track down FARC fighters. There doesn’t seem to be any particular evidence that something like this is about to happen, but Maduro and Colombian President Iván Duque hate each other so this was probably just an excuse for Maduro to tweak him a bit. Meanwhile, Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó says that he wants to use satellite imagery to help Colombia track down militants operating on Venezuelan soil. Normally I’d say nobody likes a snitch, but in this case the Colombian, Brazilian, and US governments do.

COLOMBIA

Duque’s military on Saturday carried out its first airstrike against FARC since at least the signing of the 2016 peace deal that ended its 50+ year insurgency. The strike reportedly killed at least nine FARC fighters in southern Colombia, but the government doesn’t seem to have gotten much more specific than that.

On Tuesday, at least four Colombian soldiers were killed when their unit was ambushed by a drug gang called the Gulf Clan in western Colombia near the town of Caucasia. The soldiers were there ostensibly to protect civilians in the area from a war between two local gangs.

EL SALVADOR

The United Nations is “reviewing” a request from Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele to support a new anti-corruption operation in that country. The effort, called the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador or CICES, is already being set up by Bukele’s government and the Organization for American States.

GUATEMALA

As the UN reviews the Salvadoran plan it may want to consider the collapse of a similar effort in Guatemala, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala or CICIG. That effort ended ignominiously on Tuesday after Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales refused to renew its mandate due to the fact that it started investigating his own alleged corruption. During its 12 years in service CICIG did prosecute hundreds of people for corruption, but ultimately it wasn’t free to investigate the charges surrounding Morales without being forced to close up shop. Guatemalan President-elect Alejandro Giammattei has promised to form his own anti-corruption agency but refused to undo Morales’s decision to end CICIG’s mandate.

THE BAHAMAS

As you undoubtedly know, people in the Bahamas spent the weekend being thoroughly pounded by Hurricane Dorian, which not only was a Category 5 storm but practically stalled over the Bahamian islands, prolonging the destruction.

If you’re inclined toward contributing to the recovery effort, there are several highly rated charities operating in the Bahamas, including GlobalGiving and Direct Relief.

UNITED STATES

The Pentagon has agreed to free up roughly $3.6 billion to put toward the construction of Donald Trump’s wall on the Mexican border, thus proving once again how completely financially strapped it is and making a strong case for upping next year’s military budget by at least another $100 billion if not more. They’re barely scraping by as it is! You know what, forget the Bahamas—send your donations to the Department of Defense, please. Their need is far greater.

If you’re wondering why the military needs money, it’s so that we can have nice things like fully autonomous killing machines:

Lethal, largely autonomous weaponry isn’t entirely new: A handful of such systems have been deployed for decades, though only in limited, defensive roles, such as shooting down missiles hurtling toward ships. But with the development of AI-infused systems, the military is now on the verge of fielding machines capable of going on the offensive, picking out targets and taking lethal action without direct human input.

So far, U.S. military officials haven’t given machines full control, and they say there are no firm plans to do so. Many officers—schooled for years in the importance of controlling the battlefield—remain deeply skeptical about handing such authority to a robot. Critics, both inside and outside of the military, worry about not being able to predict or understand decisions made by artificially intelligent machines, about computer instructions that are badly written or hacked, and about machines somehow straying outside the parameters created by their inventors. Some also argue that allowing weapons to decide to kill violates the ethical and legal norms governing the use of force on the battlefield since the horrors of World War II.

But if the drawbacks of using artificially intelligent war machines are obvious, so are the advantages. Humans generally take about a quarter of a second to react to something we see—think of a batter deciding whether to swing at a baseball pitch. But now machines we’ve created have surpassed us, at least in processing speed. Earlier this year, for example, researchers at Nanyang Technological University, in Singapore, focused a computer network on a data set of 1.2 million images; the computer then tried to identify all the pictured objects in just 90 seconds, or 0.000075 seconds an image.

The computer only got it right 58 percent of the time, which would probably be really bad in combat! But the technology is still new. Anyway, once the Pentagon has the funding to develop an AI capable of conducting military operations, we can expect that it will then need additional funding to mount a futile effort to keep that AI from slaughtering us all. I mean, we’ve all seen the Terminator films, right? At least the first couple? So we know how this story ends.