World update: September 7-8 2019

Stories from Iran, Afghanistan, the Bahamas, and more

THESE DAYS IN HISTORY

September 6, 1522: The Victoria returns to Spain as the first ship to successfully circumnavigate the earth. It had set out as one of five vessels in Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition in 1519 and was the only ship to survive the journey. It would formally complete the voyage two days later by returning to the port whence it departed, Seville.

September 6, 1955: The two-day Istanbul Pogrom begins with news reports that the Turkish consulate in Thessaloniki (which happened to be the home where Turkey’s founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, was born). A mob began attacking Greeks in Istanbul and then expanded its scope to include Armenians and Jews. Between 13 and 30 people are said to have been killed in the violence and the incident began a process of Greek emigration that played out over the next several years. In reality, the whole thing was planned and carried out by Turkey’s two “Operation Gladio” organizations, the Tactical Mobilisation Group and Counter-Guerrilla. They were responding to the rise of Greek unionism (Enosis) in Cyprus and were likely also working on a longer-term project to “encourage” minority emigration and thereby “Turkify” Turkey.

September 6, 1970: The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacks three passenger jets (it failed in a fourth attempt), diverting two of them to Dawson’s Field in Jordan. The PFLP would hijack a fourth aircraft and divert it to Dawson’s Field three days later. The hijackings put the government of Jordan in an uncomfortable position, to say the least, and led to the “Black September” war between the Jordanians and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

September 7, 1191: The Battle of Arsuf

September 7, 1822: Brazilian Independence Day—Portuguese prince and Brazilian regent Dom Pedro (the future Pedro I of Brazil) declares Brazil’s independence from Portugual. The ensuing war, which had already begun at a low level in early 1822, ended in 1825 with a Brazilian victory.

September 7, 1901: The Boxer Rebellion ends with the defeat of the Yìhétuán rebels and the signing of the Boxer Protocol. Under the treaty, the Chinese government was obliged to pay an indemnity to the Allies—Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States—as well as Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, and Sweden, and to take steps to diminish its military capabilities.

September 8, 617: Rebels led by the Duke of Tang, Li Yuan, defeat an imperial Sui Dynasty army by luring it out of the city of Huoyi in northern China. The victory left Li Yuan preeminent among the many nobles who were in rebellion against the Sui, and the following June he had himself crowned Emperor Gaozu of the new Tang Dynasty.

September 8, 1380: With a well-timed cavalry charge against the Mongolian flank, an army of united Russian principalities under the command of Prince Dmitry of Moscow defeats the Golden Horde army at the Battle of Kulikovo. Ironically the battle left the Golden Horde in a stronger position because the death of the warlord Maimai’s puppet khan left the entire empire under the control of Maimai’s rival, Tokhtamysh. In 1382 he besieged Moscow and violently sacked the city. Kulikovo didn’t have much of an immediate impact for the Russian people, but it was a sign that the Golden Horde’s power was fading and that Moscow’s was rising.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

The ceasefire imposed by Russia and the Syrian military in northwestern Syria on August 31 has been holding, tentatively, albeit with some scattered reports of violations. Rebels launched a drone strike against a Syrian military position in Hama province on Friday night, for example, but government forces say they managed to bring them down before they reached their target.

US and Turkish soldiers conducted their first joint patrol in northeastern Syria on Sunday. They did so even though Washington and Ankara still haven’t worked out the size or shape of the “safe zone” they’re supposed to be patrolling. Those details will come later, presumably, at which point Turkey will send many of its Syrian refugees to the new safe zone in order to get them out of Turkey and to displace the Kurds living along the border. So far the Kurdish YPG militia has been moving its forces away from the border and seems to be cooperating with the plan, but says it will not be able to abide Turkish bases inside the zone and will likely have something to say if the zone runs as deep into Syria as Ankara wants (30 kilometers). Damascus called the joint patrols a “blatant violation of international law” and of Syrian sovereignty.

YEMEN

Would Yemen be better off with the current level of aid it’s receiving from the UK or with a portion of the revenue that Britain has garnered from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia and the UAE for use in destroying Yemen? You likely won’t be surprised to learn it’s the latter. The £770 million Britain has given in aid over the past five years is positively dwarfed by the £6.2 billion it’s raked in from those arms sales. The UK government has suspended its weapons sales to Saudi Arabia after a court ruling froze them earlier this year and suggested that British officials hadn’t done enough to ascertain whether British-made weapons were being used against Yemeni civilians. And that’s just the UK. Who knows what the US profit margin has been on this war.

TURKEY

Turkish Interior Minister Süleyman Soylu told reporters on Sunday that there’s no chance Ankara will oust the mayors of Ankara and Istanbul as it’s recently done with three mayors of cities in the predominantly Kurdish southeastern part of the country. Which probably means that’s going to happen at some point. The three Kurdish mayors—in Diyarbakır, Van, and Mardin—were ousted for their alleged links to terrorism, but the definition of “terrorism” in Turkey these days is fluid. Istanbul Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu has criticized the decision to remove those three mayors, prompting a vague threat from Soylu to “devastate” him.

IRAQ

Four bombs exploded across Baghdad on Saturday, wounding at least 14 people. No group has claimed responsibility but presumably Islamic State was the culprit.

KUWAIT

Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah is in the US for a meeting later this week with Donald Trump, but he’s now had to postpone that get together after being admitted to a hospital for tests over the weekend. Sabah is 90 and has had some recent health struggles, but Kuwaiti authorities aren’t saying much about his condition.

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi King Salman on Sunday continued his shakeup of the country’s oil and energy leadership, as well as his family’s monopolization of power, by appointing another of his sons, Prince Abdulaziz b. Salman, as his energy minister. Abdulaziz, the considerably older half-brother of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman, replaces previous energy minister Khalid al-Falih, who in the space of about a week has gone from minister of energy, industry, and mineral resources and chairman of the board of Aramco to minister of energy and chairman of the board of Aramco, then just minister of energy, and now nothing. If Salman decides to demote him any further they’ll probably need to break out the bone saws.

Abdulaziz is not known to be particularly chummy with his half-brother, but he’s presumably more amenable to MBS’s plan to partially privatize Aramco than was Falih. He’s also apparently a fan of limiting production to keep global oil prices high, which seems to be in line with MBS’s approach. He is the first Saudi royal to serve as minister of energy since the kingdom created that office back (originally as minister of petroleum) in 1960, but his extensive experience in the ministry—where he’s been working in one capacity or another since 1995—may insulate him somewhat from charges of nepotism. Nevertheless, it’s been longstanding internal Saudi policy that the energy/oil ministry was too big a job to go to a Saud because that might upset the balance of power between the various branches of the royal family. So this is bound to raise some eyebrows.

IRAN

The International Atomic Energy Agency has detected traces of uranium at the alleged “secret atomic warehouse” in Tehran whose existence the Israeli government publicly revealed last year. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of having at one time stored 15 kilograms of uranium on that site, and this would seem to corroborate that accusation though they don’t prove it—the material the IAEA has detected could have been left by equipment or other items that had been in contact with uranium in some way. Even if Netanyahu’s accusation is proven that’s not a lot of uranium, and the IAEA’s samples apparently show it was not highly enriched, but the fact that the Iranians didn’t account for it would be problematic. The fact that Iran hasn’t yet accounted for these trace readings, even though the IAEA first inquired about them two months ago, is already problematic.

Iran’s newest “reduction in compliance with” the 2015 nuclear deal is actually a bigger deal than it initially seemed. Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization announced Saturday that in addition to ignoring the deal’s restrictions on its research and development into advanced centrifuge technology, it is also using the advanced centrifuges it’s already built. This will quickly and significantly increase Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium. The Iranians have notified the IAEA of their activities, so at least the agreement’s inspections regime is still in place. The Iranians insist that they’re not violating the deal because language in its text allows any party to the accord to adjust its level of compliance in response to a failure by any of the deal’s other parties to uphold their obligations. The US of course is in complete breach of the deal, and the other parties to the deal have done little to ensure that Iran receives any of its benefits because they don’t want to run afoul of US sanctions.

Iranian officials said on Sunday that the Adrian Darya-1 oil tanker has sold its cargo and unloaded it in the eastern Mediterranean. Which almost certainly means it’s delivered the oil to Syria. The ship was near the Syrian coast when it turned off its transponder last week, and has since been photographed near the Syrian port of Tartus by a US satellite. This development is likely to inflame UK-Iranian relations, inasmuch as the Iranians supposedly promised British authorities that the ship wasn’t heading to Syria in order to secure its release from captivity in Gibraltar last month. However, in related news, the Iranians say they’ve undertaken “the final legal and judicial steps” in releasing the British-flagged tanker Stena Impero, which they seized in the Strait of Hormuz in July. That, in turn, should improve UK-Iranian relations.

ASIA

GEORGIA

In what was a foregone conclusion but should probably be mentioned anyway, Georgia’s parliament on Sunday approved former interior minister Giorgi Gakharia as the country’s new prime minister. Gakharia replaces former PM Mamuka Bakhtadze, who was probably fired by Georgian Dream party leader/Georgian plutocrat Bidzina Ivanishvili on Monday though he said he’d resigned after somehow accomplishing all of his goals during his one year and two-ish months in office. He must be very efficient!

AFGHANISTAN

The weekend’s biggest story is that the US-Taliban peace process is apparently dead, at least for the moment. Donald Trump announced on Saturday that he’s canceling negotiations with the Taliban after the group carried out an attack in Kabul on Thursday that killed at least 12 people, including one US soldier. What’s disconcerting about this isn’t how mercurial it is, because we should be used to that. It’s the sense that, had the Taliban murdered 12 people on Thursday who weren’t Americans, the deal would still be going forward. It’s the sense that Trump was probably unperturbed by the other 11 deaths, as well as all the deaths the Taliban has been causing in recent days with its attacks on cities across northern and western Afghanistan. Agree with this president’s outreach to the Taliban or don’t, but what’s always been the scariest thing about his foreign policy is the absence of even minimal concern for non-American lives.

Trump’s decision presumably quashes the deal his negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, had been negotiating, which included a rapid withdrawal of around 5000 US soldiers from Afghanistan and a phased withdrawal beyond that based on milestones the Taliban were supposed to meet. Khalilzad had said the two sides were in agreement on the deal “in principle.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later confirmed that the peace talks are kaput, though this is Trump we’re talking about so all it could take is one “warm and productive statement” from the Taliban to get him to completely reverse course. Pompeo did allow as to the possibility that “a significant commitment” from the Taliban could get things back on track, but it’s unclear what that would entail. Trump also revealed on Saturday that the negotiating process was both weirder and further along than most people seem to have known:

While many people have focused on the imagery of the Taliban going to Camp David so close to the anniversary of 9/11, which it appears they somehow find more repugnant than the 18 year Afghan war, the New York Times reported on Sunday that the tweet itself is probably not true. According to them, Taliban leaders were hesitant about coming to the US, especially if Ghani (whom they regard as the illegitimate leader of an illegitimate government) was involved. The Taliban and the Afghan government had also been resisting other terms, like a prisoner release and more importantly a ceasefire. The Camp David event was reportedly thrown together quickly, in order to give Trump the kind of big gaudy spectacle he loves, and without a lot of though toward details like, you know, whether any of the invitees would attend, and it was Trump’s idea to invite Ghani without first checking to see how that would go over with the Taliban. He also insisted that the deal should be announced at Camp David so as to center him as the dealmaker, when the Taliban were only willing to come to Camp David after the deal had been announced. In short, it would appear that Trump scuttled his own peace deal in the name of putting on a good show.

Trump’s cancellation seems to have genuinely rocked the Taliban, who responded by criticizing his impatience and promising to inflict more punishment on the US. It seems to have been welcomed, on the other hand, by many Afghans who were fearful that a peace deal would have led to the restoration of Taliban rule over the country. That said, most of the Afghans commenting positively on this development seem to be living in Kabul, where they’re somewhat—though not entirely, clearly—removed from the heaviest toll of the ongoing war. It might be a different story if you asked folks in Farah or Kunduz provinces how they feel.

INDIA

The Indian Space Research Organization has found its Vikram moon lander, with which it lost contact during its landing on a few days ago. Its Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, which deposited Vikram and the rover it carried at the lunar south poll, has been able to capture images of the landing site. Presumably Vikram landed hard and was heavily damaged as a result, but the ISRO is still trying to regain contact with it.

INDONESIA

Many residents of the area chosen as the site of Indonesia’s future capital don’t exactly appear to be thrilled by the news:

Sugio’s orchard is his life’s work and a great source of pride for the 79-year-old resident of Tengin Baru village in Indonesia’s East Kalimantan. The orchard sits back from the main road, which in places is no more than a potholed track that cuts through jungles and villages. The plot of land is tranquil and filled with birdsong.

For 42 years Sugio has cultivated his hectare, diligently planting a variety of colourful fruits and vegetables. He points out corn, durian, rambutan, pepper and sweet potato plots; ducks and chickens wander around in the afternoon sun. “We have everything we need here,” he says. “Our family can’t even eat everything before it spoils, so we sell it at the market. Our life is already perfect.”

But he worries it might not be perfect much longer. The future of Sugio’s farm is under threat because it sits on land that has been earmarked for the site of Indonesia’s new capital, which is set to be moved from Jakarta to the sparsely-populated regencies of Kutai Kartanegara and Penajam Paser Utara on the island of Borneo.

Environmentalists are concerned as well. The Indonesian government insists that it will work to minimize the impact of the new city by prohibiting construction in protected forestland and reforesting areas that have been cleared for illegal mining and palm oil production. But its track record on environmental issues isn’t good, and it’s offered no plan for minimizing the city’s impact on habitats, which is not great in a region that’s home to the endangered orangutan.

PHILIPPINES

The Islamic State was responsible for at least one and probably two terrorist attacks in the Philippines over the weekend. IS has claimed responsibility for a motorcycle bombing on Saturday at a market in Sultan Kudarat province in which at least seven people were wounded. On Sunday, a “foreign looking” (whatever that means) suicide bomber dressed in traditionally women’s clothing attempted to gain access to a Philippine military facility in Sulu province and was killed when an explosive went off during an ensuing confrontation with soldiers. There were no other casualties reported. It’s unclear whether the bomber was male or female from the remains.

CHINA

Things in Hong Kong took an unexpected and maybe disconcerting turn on Sunday when thousands of protesters gathered in front of the US consulate to ask Donald Trump to “stand with Hong Kong” and, uh, “liberate” it. To be clear, the United States is not going to liberate Hong Kong. Donald Trump isn’t terribly big on liberation in general and certainly not when it would kick off World War III. But if people are hoping to avoid the scenario in which the Chinese government rolls its military into Hong Kong to put the protests down violently, this sort of talk is probably not very helpful. The previous day, authorities were largely successful in preventing a planned protest at Hong Kong’s airport, but clashed with demonstrators in the city’s Mong Kok district for the second night in a row.

Protest leaders seem to have a more modest US-related goal in mind, which is that Congress passes the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. That measure would require the US government to review the special commercial privileges it affords Hong Kong on an annual basis. It’s currently stalled in the Senate while Democrats urge Mitch McConnell to bring it to the floor.

AFRICA

SUDAN

Members of Sudan’s Beni Amer and Nuba communities signed a new agreement on Sunday aiming to put an end to their inter-communal violence in the Port Sudan region, which killed upwards of 16 people last month. The Sudanese military had threatened to expel both communities from the country altogether if they didn’t reach some sort of accommodation, which would have been quite the undertaking and also means they signed the agreement under duress and therefore that it may not be very durable.

LIBYA

At least three pro-government fighters were killed on Saturday during an operation against the “Libyan National Army” near Tripoli. The fighting doesn’t appear to have significantly changed the situation there.

TUNISIA

The 26 people running for president of Tunisia gathered on Saturday for the first of three nights of debate ahead of next Sunday’s election. Each of the three debates will feature a different group of candidates so as to cover the entire field. The race is unsettled heading into the vote both because of the withdrawal and then death of incumbent Beji Caid Essebsi (in April and July, respectively) and the arrest of one of the frontrunners, media tycoon Nabil Karoui, on corruption allegations last month.

BURKINA FASO

At least 29 people were killed in northern Burkina Faso on Sunday in two attacks, one against a food convoy that killed at least 14 and the other against a transport truck that killed at least 15. No group has claimed responsibility, but both Islamic State in the Greater Sahara and al-Qaeda affiliates like Ansar ul Islam and the Mali-based Jamaʿat Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin are active in the region.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

The Russian and Ukrainian governments carried out a small but significant prisoner swap on Saturday, exchanging 35 captives on either side including the 24 Ukrainian sailors taken captive by the Russian military in an incident in the Kerch Strait last year. One of the prisoners returned to Russia is a suspect in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine in 2014. While I’m sure it was meaningful to the people who are now no longer in captivity, the exchange matters less than what comes after. The hope is that it will be a confidence-building measure that leads to more substantive talks over the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

UNITED KINGDOM

Boris Johnson had another fantastic day on Saturday. His secretary of state for work and pensions, Amber Rudd, resigned from the cabinet and the Conservative caucus to protest Johnson’s decision to expel 21 caucus members who voted against him earlier in the week to block a no deal Brexit by forcing Johnson to request an extension of the October 31 deadline in the absence of an agreement. Rudd was also critical of what she says is the government’s focus on preparing for a no deal scenario rather than trying to negotiate a new deal with the European Union. Johnson and his people are worried that Rudd is just the first of several MPs to quit the caucus. Meanwhile, in response to the bill to block a no deal Brexit, which should get royal assent on Monday, Johnson’s government at this point appears to be proceeding as if it doesn’t exist. The plan, according to Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, is “to test to the limit what it does actually lawfully require.”

Meanwhile, over in Europe, it’s transpiring that none of the debate in London may actually matter. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Sunday that unless Johnson presents some fresh ideas or at least a specific sense of his objectives to the rest of the EU at a meeting next month, the French government might veto an extension request if Johnson makes one. The EU overall still seems willing to extend the deadline rather than incur a no deal Brexit, but there does seem to be a growing sense that there’s little point in continuing this process if nothing about it is going to change.

AMERICAS

COLOMBIA

With several ex-FARC leaders deciding to resume their insurrection in recent days, journalist Megan Janetsky argues that President Iván Duque needs to reverse course and try to salvage the 2016 peace deal that he’s so far done much to undermine. This seems unlikely. Duque campaigned against the peace deal and has made killing it—by underfunding programs to integrate former FARC fighters into society and to protect them from reprisal attacks—one of his main projects in office. Moreover, his Democratic Center party is led by former president and staunch deal opponent Álvaro Uribe. And on top of that, public sentiment appears to have turned against FARC and the peace deal since the late-August announcement that part of the group was taking up arms again. At the very least, the rank-and-file of Duque’s own party would likely be dead set against a change in policy now.

THE BAHAMAS

Many Bahamians appear to be growing frustrated with their government’s response to Hurricane Dorian:

The distribution of emergency supplies of food, water and medicine has been mostly coordinated by an ad hoc network of volunteers from Bahamian and American nonprofit groups. But Abacos residents say their own government, whose resources were largely wiped out, has been notably absent in the six days since the Category 5 storm struck and killed at least 43 people.

Also, the Bahamas and other small island nations work through a regional organization, the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, to coordinate emergency response and relief and their help is not always clearly visible to people struggling on the ground.

“It’s ridiculous. Ridiculous,” said Martin McCafferty, a contractor based here in Marsh Harbour, the biggest town on the Abaco Islands. “This is a catastrophe, and they should be here in numbers.”

UNITED STATES

Finally, in a review of Samantha Power’s memoir, The Education of an Idealist, University of Washington historian Daniel Bessner argues that she doesn’t seem to have learned very much about the limitations of her liberal interventionist view of US foreign policy:

The assumption running through Power’s career is that the American empire is able to act as a force for good in the world. At her memoir’s end—and in the wake of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria—she affirms that “on issue after issue, either the United States brought a game plan to the table or else the problem worsened.” Though this might be true in some cases, it is certainly not the rule, especially when one considers the disastrous effects of the nation’s wars in the Greater Middle East; its pointless antagonism of China, Russia, and Iran; its unwillingness to take the business-unfriendly steps required to arrest climate change; and its unhesitating promotion of a capitalist system that has exploited the labor of untold millions. The last several decades have taught us that the world needs far less American “leadership” than it has enjoyed. 

If you accept Power’s premises, then humanitarian intervention boils down to a purely philosophical inquiry: Is it right to save lives if one has the capacity to do so? The answer, of course, is yes. The problem, though, is that intervention is not a thought experiment; it takes place in a world of brutal realities. In particular, humanitarian forces confront radical uncertainty. Is intervention likely to impel more violence in the long term? Do policymakers actually know enough about the situation on the ground to make the “right” decisions? Is the American public willing to commit itself to years-long reconstruction efforts? Honest answers here may not sit well with idealism. In many instances, the most moral act is not to act at all.