World update: September 5 2019

Stories from Iran, Afghanistan, South Africa, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 4, 476: Odoacer and his army depose Romulus Augustus (“Augustulus”) at Ravenna. This is the conventional date given for the final end of the Roman Empire in the west, though there were other claimants to the throne still kicking around and in any practical sense the western empire had been kaput for some time already.

September 4, 1839: Four British boats open fire on a group of Chinese junks enforcing a blockade on the English community in Hong Kong, killing two in what’s known as the Battle of Kowloon. This minor engagement sparked the First Opium War, which ended with Britain in control of Hong Kong and China forced to agree to major trade concessions.

September 4, 1912: The Albanian Revolt of 1912 ends

September 5, 1905: The Russo-Japanese War ends with the signing of the Treaty of Portsmouth, negotiated with the mediation of Teddy Roosevelt (who won the Nobel Peace Prize as a result). The Russians were obliged to evacuate Manchuria, acknowledge Korea as within Japan’s sphere of influence, and turn over a couple of Pacific islands to Tokyo. The war marked Japan as a rising power and contributed to growing political discontent in Russia that wasn’t resolved until 1917.

September 5, 1972: Members of the Palestinian terror group “Black September” kill two members of the Israeli delegation and take nine more hostage during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. A poorly handled rescue attempt at the Munich airport by West German police the following day ended with the nine hostages killed as well as five of the attackers and one police officer.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

So the good news is that Syrian farmers produced around 2.2 million metric tons of wheat this year, which is almost double what they were able to grow last year. And that’s not even including Idlib and Raqqa provinces, which were too unstable to inspect. The bad news is that’s still only about half as much wheat as Syria was producing before the war began, so the country remains food insecure. Though the conflict has been mostly confined to a couple of places in the country, roughly 6.5 million Syrians are believed to be dependent on food assistance and several hundred thousand more are at risk of falling into dependency.

YEMEN

Thousand of people marched in Aden on Thursday in what I’m sure was a completely spontaneous and not staged in any way demonstration of support for the United Arab Emirates. Aden is now under the control of the separatist Southern Transitional Council, which is a UAE client and which relied on UAE airstrikes against Yemeni government forces to regain control of the city after briefly losing it last week. The rally comes as Yemeni and STC representatives are engaged in indirect talks in the Saudi city of Jeddah to try to end (or at least pause) their conflict. Saudi officials are demanding that the STC relinquish control of the city but so far it doesn’t show any sign of budging. It’s still unclear how badly the southern Yemen situation has damaged the Saudi-UAE relationship but it’s hard to imagine it hasn’t damaged that relationship at least somewhat.

Speaking of talks, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker told reporters on Thursday that the US is “having talks to the extent possible with the Houthis to try and find a mutually accepted negotiated solution” to the Yemeni civil war. My guess is that “to the extent possible” is doing a lot of work there, so I don’t imagine whatever contacts have been made have progressed very far. The Houthis have not acknowledged talking with the US but are bragging about the fact that the US says it wants to talk with them, which they’re treating as a sign that they’re winning.

TURKEY

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan told members of his Justice and Development Party on Thursday that his government is planning to return some one million Syrian refugees to Syria via a new “safe zone” that Ankara and Washington are supposed to be creating along the border. This would be forced relocation in order to deliberately alter the demographics of northeastern Syria and displace that region’s Kurdish residents, which is a program the Turks have already implemented in northwestern Syria. However, so far the US and Turkey don’t appear able to agree on the details surrounding that safe zone, and consequently Erdoğan also said that he’s prepared to start allowing Syrian refugees to cross into Europe unless the US gives him what he wants.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

US Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt is reportedly planning to resign after the Trump administration releases the Kushner Accords, whenever that is. Ostensibly he’s stepping down to spent more time with his family and not because the accords are already pretty much DOA. As to when the US might finally make the plan public, it could happen later this month after the Israeli election but that probably depends on how the election goes.

EGYPT

The US is about to send $1.3 billion in military aid to Egypt, citing national security reasons to justify the aid despite the Egyptian government’s lousy (and getting lousier) human rights record). Donald Trump likes Abdel Fattah el-Sisi so that’s that, but Egypt is increasingly coming under congressional scrutiny and even some people within the administration, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, seem to be losing their patience with the opacity of Cairo’s anti-insurgency campaign in Sinai. Egyptian authorities have been accused of multiple extrajudicial killings in that conflict.

Just two ridiculously authoritarian buddies hanging out at the G7 (White House photo via Wikimedia Commons)

IRAN

The Iranian government has reportedly notified the European Union that it will undertake its third deliberate violation of the 2015 nuclear deal in response to the Trump administration’s efforts to wreck the agreement altogether. As expected, the Iranians say they will stop abiding by the agreement’s limitations on research and development of advanced centrifuges for uranium enrichment. This doesn’t mean Tehran intends to start using those advanced centrifuges, but it does mean that they can develop and presumably manufacture enough of them to start an industrial-scale enrichment program if/when the deal collapses entirely.

While in London, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made comments to reporters on Thursday that suggested he’s resigning himself to the possibility that Donald Trump will meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the United Nations General Assembly later this month. Trump has been talking up the idea of a meeting for at least the past several days, and he’s apparently been giving Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin a bigger role in Iran policymaking because, unlike Trump’s senior foreign policy advisers, Mnuchin doesn’t seem to think that negotiating with the Iranians is inherently a bad idea. After arguing earlier in the day that it’s “not the time” for direct US-Iran talks, Netanyahu later said “I don’t tell the president of the U.S. who he should meet and who he shouldn’t meet” and said he was confident Trump would take a tough position if talks were held.

Netanyahu reflexively opposes anything that might normalize Iran, because it would force him to find a new bogeyman with which to frighten Israeli voters and deflect international attention from what’s happening in Gaza and the West Bank. Still, I’m not sure he needs to be worried. Much can change over the next couple of weeks, but Rouhani has been pretty firm in rejecting a meeting with Trump after last week suggesting he might be open to the idea and getting smacked around politically for it. And his foreign minister certainly doesn’t sound very diplomatic toward Washington:

The Financial Times is reporting that last week the Trump administration attempted to bribe and/or blackmail the captain of the Iranian oil tanker Adrian Darya-1 into surrendering his vessel to authorities, and he’s not alone:

“This is Brian Hook . . . I work for secretary of state Mike Pompeo and serve as the US Representative for Iran,” Mr Hook wrote to Akhilesh Kumar on August 26, according to several emails seen by the Financial Times. “I am writing with good news.” 

The “good news” was that the Trump administration was offering Mr Kumar several million dollars to pilot the ship — until recently known as the Grace 1 — to a country that would impound the vessel on behalf of the US. To make sure Mr Kumar did not mistake the email for a scam, it included an official state department phone number.

The remarkable outreach by such a high-ranking official was not an isolated case. Mr Hook, who heads the state department’s Iran Action Group, has emailed or texted roughly a dozen captains in recent months in an effort to scare mariners into understanding that helping Iran evade sanctions comes at a heavy price.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

A Taliban bombing in Kabul on Thursday killed at least ten people, including one US soldier and one Romanian soldier. The bombing comes at a tricky time, given that the US and Taliban just concluded a draft peace agreement that’s now being reviewed by both the Afghan and US governments. The draft has met with a fair amount of concern in Kabul, but more importantly it’s also running into problems in Washington, where Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is reportedly refusing to sign it. Those concerns mostly revolve around the fact that this isn’t really a peace deal, it’s cover for a partial US withdrawal. There doesn’t seem to be any assurance that the Taliban won’t oust the current Afghan government and really there isn’t even any assurance that the deal will end the war, since the US would only pull some of its forces out of the country initially.

Pompeo’s specific concern may be that if he signs the deal it could be interpreted as US recognition of a Taliban government. His refusal to sign doesn’t do anything to hamper the deal itself unless the Taliban take it as an insult and withdraw from talks. It’s ultimately Trump who has to decide whether or not to approve the agreement and, if he does, everybody will find a way to enact it without getting Pompeo’s signature. Despite his position on signing the agreement, Pompeo said in an interview on Wednesday that the US has “delivered” on its mission because “today, al-Qaeda . . . doesn’t even amount to a shadow of its former self in Afghanistan.” And OK, that’s true, but it’s a little weird to claim victory in an 18 year war because of something you’d achieved after maybe two years tops. What have the other 16 years been about?

KASHMIR

The Indian government says it’s restored landline phone service throughout Kashmir. Which sounds less impressive when you remember that it was the Indian government that turned off landline phone service there last month to prevent media coverage of the Indian crackdown in that region. And when you remember that the Indian government still hasn’t restored internet or cell service for the same reason.

INDONESIA

Speaking of internet blackouts, the Indonesian government says it’s partially restored internet service in Papua province, which it cut off three weeks ago amid unrest in that province and neighboring West Papua province. Indonesian authorities have now apparently decided to blame the unrest on Papuan separatists, even though the protests started after police mistreated a group of Papuan students and they seem to have been animated more by anger over discrimination than by separatism.

CHINA

The Middle East Institute’s Alex Vatanka suggests that while Iranian leaders increasingly view China as Tehran’s indispensable ally against the US, they’re also showing a little trepidation about just how one-sided that relationship is:

China, in Zarif’s thinking, should pick up the challenge of ending supposed U.S. bigotry around the world, and Iran would happily throw its support behind such an effort. Criticizing the Trump administration’s decision to abandon the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, Zarif explicitly asked for Beijing’s immediate support to keep the agreement alive. “How we respond to this [U.S.] maximalism and this blatant violation of international commitments and law may have a defining impact on our ability to reach for that shared vision of our continent’s future.” He appealed to Chinese sympathies by highlighting the China-U.S. trade war as a prime example of how American unilateralism is a danger to what he called a “rules-based” international order.

And yet, a sense of trepidation about China’s reaction to his pitch was evident in the very same words voiced by Zarif. His call for a “strong foundation of economic relations that benefits both parties” was a peek into widespread worries in Iran that the existing economic ties are skewed in China’s favor. Iranian officials quietly bemoan the fact that U.S. pressures on Iran have turned their country into a captive customer for Beijing. The formula of discounted Iranian crude oil going to China in return for whatever China is willing to offer is unfit for Iran’s vision of strategic partnership. Instead, Zarif urged the Chinese to let Iran “contribute effectively to China’s plan to build a world-leading base for science, technology and innovation.” It was an Iranian request to be included in what many in Tehran have evidently judged to be a Chinese golden era yet to fully emerge.

OCEANIA

SOLOMON ISLANDS

The Chinese government has bought itself another friend. Solomon Islands officials say they will cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan to embrace Beijing, which will by my count leave only 16 countries in the world that still have formal relations with Taipei. They haven’t made a formal decision yet so there’s still a chance someone or something could intervene to change Honiara’s collective mind, but that seems unlikely.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Sudan has a government for the first time since the military coup that ousted former President Omar al-Bashir in April. New Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok unveiled his cabinet picks on Thursday. They all appear to be “technocrats,” if you believe that’s a real thing that somebody can be, which makes sense given the sort of national unity tinge that this interim government is supposed to have. Among Hamdock’s picks are Sudan’s first female foreign minister, former ambassador Asma Mohamed Abdalla.

SOUTH AFRICA

The South African government is scrambling to clamp down on the riots and mob attacks that have been targeting foreigners in Johannesburg and Pretoria over the past week. It’s blaming the riots on what it calls “Afrophobia,” which is basically xenophobia but specifically targeting people from other parts of Africa. President Cyril Ramaphosa said on Thursday that ten people have been killed in the violence thus far, two of them foreigners, while police have reported 15 people killed. The violence has overshadowed a World Economic Forum summit being held in Cape Town, particularly because it caused the Nigerian government to boycott that event.

The violence is causing a “backlash” against South Africa in several other African countries. In extreme cases it’s led to reprisal attacks against South African interests abroad—particularly in Nigeria, where South African officials have decided to temporarily close their embassy due to concerns for the safety of their personnel.

EUROPE

UNITED KINGDOM

Everything is continuing to go extremely well for Boris Johnson.

It’s going so well, in fact, that, well…

That’s Boris’s own brother, quitting both the cabinet and parliament altogether. Bear in mind that Boris has been prime minister for a little over a month now, and for most of that time parliament has been on vacation. He’s now desperately trying to dissolve parliament and hold a new election in order to undo this week’s vote forcing him to request a Brexit extension from the EU if the October 31 deadline arrives with no exit deal in place. He may try again to call for an election under the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, though he’s already lost one FTPA vote and isn’t likely to win a second. Barring that, he could call for a vote of no-confidence and vote against himself, but there’s no guarantee he’d win (or in this case lose, technically) that vote either and even if he did he would risk losing power altogether to some form of caretaker government cobbled together by opponents of a no deal Brexit.

AMERICAS

UNITED STATES

The Pentagon has diverted some $3.6 billion toward financing Donald Trump’s border wall, and it’s done so in part by cutting programs meant to help US military personnel stationed overseas—things like schools and child care facilities. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has a simple solution to keep those programs going—get the host countries to pay for them. If we can’t get Mexico to pay for the wall, apparently the plan is to get every other US ally to pay for it. It’s unclear how many of those host countries are actually going to be duped into playing along with this idea.

Finally, with the UN General Assembly coming up in just a couple of weeks, it’s apparent just how much, for better or worse, the Trump administration has ceded influence within the UN to countries it considers to be US competitors:

Over the last two and a half years, the United States has struggled to rally support within the U.N. to contain the influence of rival powers from Iran to Russia to China, which has effectively mobilized U.N. backing for its Belt and Road Initiative, despite U.S. efforts to counter it. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has also largely dismissed repeated warnings from allies and others that its own retreat from multilateral diplomacy would create a vacuum that could promote chaos or leave room for the rise of authoritarian powers such as China.

“President Trump and his policy of isolationism has left a giant vacuum around the world,” Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in June 2018. “Who will fill this vacuum? Authoritarian powers? Anyone at all?”

The rise of China on the world stage has been an inevitable byproduct of its increasing economic clout, which has enabled it to leverage massive foreign investment into broader support for its foreign policy. American allies, particularly from Europe, have been warning Trump administration officials that the relative U.S. retreat from international organizations and trade agreements would accelerate China’s growing influence.