World update: January 23 2019

I’ll be out much of this evening, so we’ll have to make do with a short update today and more detailed stuff tomorrow.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met in Moscow on Wednesday to talk about Syria. While speculation was that Erdoğan would try to win Putin’s support for a Turkish offensive against the Kurdish YPG militia in northeastern Syria, all we know so far is that they talked about finding a way to “stabilize” Idlib province. Which, since it’s now almost entirely controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra), is easier said than done without resorting to a full scale military offensive. It’s unclear whether they got beyond generalities in their talk. Meanwhile, the Russian Foreign Ministry told reporters that “the practice of arbitrary strikes on the territory of a sovereign state, in this case, we are talking about Syria, should be ruled out,” in response to questions about Israel’s latest airstrikes on Syria. Which likely isn’t what the Israelis wanted to hear.

The European Union imposed sanctions on 11 Syrian individuals and five entities earlier this week, all targeting the country’s business community. The goal, according to European officials, is to hamstring Syria’s reconstruction efforts so as to force Bashar al-Assad to engage in meaningful political reform, whatever that may be. This isn’t likely to succeed, but it’s not as though the West has a ton of cards to play if it wants to weaken Assad or even try to remove him from power.

IRAQ

One Iraqi soldier was killed on Wednesday by a car bomb in a town just outside of the city of Kirkuk. Presumably ISIS was responsible.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Protesters briefly blocked Route 4370, AKA “Apartheid Road,” on Wednesday. The road, outside of Jerusalem, separates Israeli and Palestinian car traffic with a wall, keeping Palestinians out of the city while giving Israeli settlers in the West Bank a convenient way in.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

The Afghan National Directorate of Security reported on Wednesday that an airstrike (it’s unclear if it was an Afghan or US strike) had killed “Commander Noman,” the Taliban leader believed to have been responsible for Monday’s devastating car bombing in Maidan Wardak province. However, a member of Maidan Wardak’s provincial council says that the strike killed six civilian hunters, none of whom were Taliban let alone “Commander Noman.” They also disagree on when the strike occurred–the NDS says it was a nighttime attack while the officials say it happened in the late morning. Nobody has reported that two different airstrikes took place so somebody is probably fibbing here.

THAILAND

In a bit of a surprise, Thailand’s military junta announced that on March 24 the country will hold its first election since the May 2014 coup that ousted its previous civilian government. The vote was supposed to take place on February 24 but the junta announced earlier this month that it was postponing them for the fifth time in five years. Most expected the postponement to last longer than a month, though of course nobody should be surprised if they postpone it again.

SOUTH KOREA

The website NK News says information it’s received shows that South Korea has been selectively enforcing/ignoring United Nations sanctions against North Korea. Specifically, it shipped almost 343 tons of oil products north in 2018 and was lax in reporting those shipments as required by UN Security Council Resolution 2397. This report is likely to increase tensions in the already tense US-South Korea relationship, but I’m wondering if maybe this wouldn’t be a good chance to talk about letting, you know, Koreans solve the problems between their two countries. Maybe South Korea ought to be allowed to take the lead on this kind of thing, seeing as how they’re most directly affected by whatever happens there. Just spitballing.

OCEANIA

TONGA

Tonga is almost totally without internet after bad weather apparently damaged the undersea cable connecting it to Fiji. Authorities have blocked social media in order to prioritize the country’s limited satellite bandwidth for vital uses. Repairs to the cable could take at least two weeks and probably longer.

AFRICA

SUDAN

In something of a surprise to yours truly, the Qatari government apparently did not offer to buy Omar al-Bashir’s friendship when he visited Doha on Wednesday. Or maybe it did. Bashir, who chose to throw in with the Saudis in their rivalry with Qatar, nevertheless is desperate for foreign aid to prop up a faltering economy and maybe quell some of the protests against him, so he sought out the Qataris. The Qataris, however, publicly offered him some verbal support and sent him on his way. So Bashir’s government announced that it’s accepted offers of aid from the United Arab Emirates (also usually eager to buy friends), Turkey, and Russia (whose “private” security firms are apparently already training the Sudanese military) instead. However, it is entirely possible that whatever aid Sudan gets from Turkey will involve Qatar in some way, since the Qataris and Turks have a close and getting closer financial relationship. Perhaps they figured it would be best for Bashir not to have the aid come directly from Qatar, but that’s my own speculation.

Back at home, Bashir’s government has cracked down on the media for covering the protest movement. At least five Sudanese journalists are known to have been disappeared so far, and dozens of others have reportedly been arrested and released. Foreign reporters working for Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya have also been targeted.

MALI

Friend of the blog Alex Thurston writes that northern Mali has become an interesting test case for what happens after jihadist groups lose the territory they’ve taken:

Since 2011, jihadists have found numerous opportunities to take territory — but they have also learned they cannot hold that territory for long. Any jihadist “proto-state” will attract attention from a superior military power, which will destroy the proto-state and force jihadists into remote areas.

One useful case study is Mali, where a jihadist state-building experiment already ended in failure. In 2012, following a separatist rebellion and a military coup, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies took control of Mali’s north. Yet jihadist field commanders, ignoring advice from AQIM’s emir Abdelmalek Droukdel, overreached ideologically and expanded too far militarily. In 2013, they provoked a French-led intervention, Operation Serval, that destroyed their proto-state. Serval killed key AQIM field commanders and dispersed the group’s remnants and allies across northwest Africa.

Yet six years later, AQIM remains central to the conflict in Mali’s north and the associated violence in the center. In northern Mali, the Timbuktu region has become a laboratory for jihadist experimentation with a kind of “shadow politics.” Timbuktu is not necessarily more important than the other major cities in northern Mali, but it is a site where AQIM frequently shows its face and, in the process, displays some of the strengths and weaknesses of its position.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

The US State Department has joined the African Union and European Union in acknowledging Felix Tshisekedi as the president-election of the DRC without congratulating him over what remains a very disputed victory. In its statement, the State Department also called on the Congolese government to address accusations of electoral irregularities.

ZIMBABWE

Shockingly, Zimbabwean security forces have continued brutalizing protesters despite Emmerson Mnangagwa’s super serious promise to investigate its abuses. There’s a lot of digital ink being spilled right now comparing Mnangagwa to his predecessor, Robert Mugabe, but the more immediate question would seem to be whether or not Mnangagwa is actually running the country or if he’s beholden to the military that put him in power. What’s happening in Zimbabwe right now makes him look more powerless to stop the violence than vindictive toward the protesters.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

The Russian government has released what it says are the technical specifications for its 9M729 cruise missile, the one the US government says violates the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, and has put the missile itself on display. Moscow insists that the missile is short-range and therefore not covered by the treaty, and it’s refusing US demands that it destroy the weapon. The Trump administration is preparing to withdraw the US from the INF treaty, as much because of concerns about China as anything to actually do with this Russian missile system.

UNITED KINGDOM

European Union Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Wednesday that a no-deal Brexit is coming at the end of March whether the British parliament likes it or not, and suggested that parliament spend its time coming to terms with Theresa May’s Brexit plan rather than holding out hope that the UK’s Brexit deadline could be extended.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

The day’s big news is that the United States has probably just instigated a coup d’etat in Venezuela. With tens of thousands of Venezuelans turning out across the country on Wednesday to protest against Nicolás Maduro in one of the largest protests the country has had in months if not years, National Assembly President Juan Guaidó took the plunge and declared himself the country’s legitimate president. The follows the assembly’s decision last week to declare the Venezuelan presidency “vacant,” a decision that had constitutional support but no practical effect since Maduro has stripped the opposition-controlled body of all of its actual authority. The claim is that Maduro rigged his re-election last year, but since most of the opposition boycotted the election they aren’t on terribly strong ground to question its legitimacy.

Donald Trump then released a statement recognizing Guaidó as Venezuela’s “legitimate” president. The Canadian government quickly followed suit, and while Mexico hasn’t jumped on board yet, Paraguay, Brazil, and Colombia have, and others are likely to join them. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed any ambiguity from the US position when he called on the Venezuelan military to “support democracy,” which means “oust the guy we don’t like.” The administration has been sidling up to this outcome for months now, so the only surprise here is how rapidly things have started moving over the past month or so.

UPDATE:

Obviously this is a rapidly developing situation and I’ll have more on it tomorrow, but one person has already reportedly been killed amid the protests and the diplomatic ramifications of recognizing Guaidó as president are immediate and big. Trump told reporters at the White House that “all options are on the table” for Venezuela and, well, there’s not much ambiguity about what that means.

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