World update: February 20 2019

We’re having a snow day here and the news seems a little slow today anyway (or maybe my brain just isn’t working very well). So today’s update will be a little shorter than usual.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Increasingly it looks like ISIS’s remaining fighters in Baghouz are down to their last few days or even hours. The convoy sent into town by the Syrian Democratic Forces on Tuesday to evacuate the area’s remaining civilian population finally left on Wednesday, with a number of ISIS fighters having hopped aboard to try to make a break for it. Most, if not all, appear to have been caught at an SDF checkpoint. British, French, and US special forces soldiers are reportedly preparing to accompany SDF fighters into the town when they make their final assault. With civilians presumably out of the way, the main concern for the attackers now is mines and other explosive devices planted by ISIS.

JORDAN

Jordanian Prime Minister Omar al-Razzaz told a group of international donors on Wednesday that his government needs more help caring for the roughly 1.3 million Syrian refugees still in camps inside Jordan. As with any long-term humanitarian crisis, the Syrian refugee crisis is running into donor fatigue, but the fact is that very few refugees have returned to Syria because conditions still aren’t safe. So the support needs in places like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey remain high.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli aircraft struck Hamas targets in Gaza late Wednesday after “a number of arson balloons” were sent over the Gaza fence. These are balloons fixed with some kind of incendiary device, intended to set fire to Israeli farmland or other property. There have been no reports of casualties.

Benjamin Netanyahu has worked out a three-way deal designed to strengthen his far right coalition ahead of April’s election. He brokered a merger of sorts between the far-right Jewish Home party and the far-right Jewish Power party by guaranteeing two seats for Jewish Home in his next cabinet. This alliance will help both of those small, far-right (Jewish Power considers itself the heir to inveterate racist Meir Kahane) parties clear the minimum threshold to win seats in the Knesset.

Polling shows that Netanyahu’s Likud party will win the April election, but that a coalition between Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid Party and Benny Gantz’s new Resilience Party could outpace them. Lapid and Gantz have had talks about joining forces, but the biggest obstacle is likely to be their respective egos and the question of who would serve as PM should they win.

The Palestinian Authority says it will no longer accept taxes collected on its behalf by the Israeli government, after the Israelis began deducting a percentage of those taxes in punishment for the PA’s policy of paying out benefits to the families of Palestinians who are arrested or killed by Israeli authorities. The Israelis have been collecting certain taxes and duties and remitting payment to the PA after deducting costs for things like utility services. The PA says it’s not willing to halt its stipend payments.

EGYPT

The Egyptian army says it has killed eight of the insurgents responsible for this past weekend’s militant attack on a checkpoint in northern Sinai. As is typical for the Egyptian government, few details were made public.

UNITED ARAB EMIRATES

At LobeLog, Eldar Mamedov argues that it’s time for the European Union to pay as much attention to the UAE’s human rights abuses as it does to Saudi Arabia’s:

Overall, however, the reaction to human rights abuses in and by the UAE is much more subdued. This is because the Emiratis enjoy a much better image in Brussels and other Western capitals than their Saudi peers. Emirati diplomats and lobby firms at their service portray the country as a beacon of modernity, tolerance, and inclusion in a region where these values are often found wanting. The recent visit of Pope Francis to Abu Dhabi for an interfaith meeting was instrumental in promoting this positive image of the UAE. By tapping into the existing biases and fears of Western public opinion on Islam, the UAE positions itself as a successful model of a Muslim society in the twenty-first century.

However, the relative social openness and the interfaith dialogue are only the visible side of the Emirati model. The other, much less glamorous, side involves a strictly authoritarian regime and repression.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

Ashraf Ghani’s government is reportedly preparing to hold a Loya Jirga, a council of Afghan leaders, next month in order to lay out how he intends to approach peace talks with the Taliban. The Taliban are of course still refusing to hold any talks with Ghani or his government, so this is all kind of theoretical. Ghani is adamant that July’s presidential election not be interrupted even though a number of Afghan and US leaders have suggested it might be better to put off the election and start talking about a temporary national unity government that would include the Taliban.

INDIA

Visiting India on his trip across Asia, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is of course doing business deals–as much as $100 billion over the next two years. Much of the focus is on non-energy projects, as the Saudis try to diversify their portfolio. MBS and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi also agreed to expand their counter-terrorism cooperation.

SOUTH KOREA

As crucial as the second Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit later this month is in terms of, you know, avoiding a nuclear holocaust, it may be even more crucial to South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s political future. Moon has built his presidency around the idea of taking back control over the Korean peace process and engaging with the North both diplomatically and economically. But the fact remains that he’s still in the back seat while the US, now in the person of Trump, drives. And his big engagement plans are limited by what Washington will allow. A major breakthrough in Hanoi later this month would help Moon out a lot, but it’s considered a long shot.

AFRICA

LIBYA

The “Libyan National Army” has reportedly handed control over the El Sharara oil field in southwestern Libya to the National Oil Company. The NOC lost control of the facility to local forces in December, but the LNA seized control of it last week. The NOC, which halted production at El Sharara in December, reportedly wants to assess the situation there before it resumes pumping.

SENEGAL

With Sunday’s election almost upon us, Al Jazeera reports that the discovery of a large offshore oil field in Senegalese waters in 2017 has made corruption a major part of Senegal’s presidential campaign:

NIGERIA

At least 16 people were killed on Wednesday in what appears to be another case of communal violence in central Nigeria. This attack, in Benue state, targeted a farming community and is believed to have been carried out by herdsmen. Nigeria’s herding and farming communities, increasingly pushed onto the same land by overpopulation and climate change, are engaged in a long-running conflict whose casualty totals have outpaced those of the country’s conflict with Boko Haram and its offshoots.

EUROPE

RUSSIA

In a speech to political leaders on Wednesday, Vladimir Putin warned that if the United States deploys more nuclear missiles to Europe, Russia will retaliate by developing newer weapons systems and targeting them at not just Europe, but the United States itself. At this point there’s no suggestion that the US is planning to deploy more nukes to Europe, despite the Trump administration’s decision to break the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and certainly no indication that European governments would allow such a deployment. Also, and this is the part Putin probably would rather ignore, there’s no indication that Russia’s anemic economy could sustain the development and manufacture of a bunch of swanky new nukes.

POLAND

The US government is trying to mediate the recent Holocaust-related dustup between the Polish and Israeli governments:

Just days after hosting a summit in Warsaw on stability in the Middle East, U.S. Ambassador Georgette Mosbacher has called on Israel’s acting foreign minister to apologize to Poland.

Israel Katz, the minister, had claimed Sunday — the day he assumed the new cabinet position — that Poles had collaborated with Nazis during World War II and quoted former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Shamir by saying that Poles “sucked anti-Semitism with their mothers’ milk.” Mosbacher, Washington’s envoy to Warsaw, said Wednesday that strong U.S. allies such as Israel and Poland “shouldn’t be using that kind of rhetoric. We are too important to each other not to work these things out.”

That the U.S. ambassador is trying to get the two close Washington allies to work through a diplomatic row is somewhat of a reversal of where things were last week — when the United States was convening friends for a summit over common interests.

AMERICAS

BRAZIL

If you’re still wondering why most good Brazilian and international capitalists were at least OK with if not downright excited by the fact that a fascist won Brazil’s presidential election last October, consider that Jair Bolsonaro just introduced a plan to hollow out Brazil’s pension system to the tune of $270 billion over the next decade. That’s one hell of a lot of austerity–excuse me, I mean the plan will empower Brazilian workers by giving them individual savings accounts so they can lose their retirement money in the stock market while they’re still working, and empower Brazilian seniors by raising the retirement age thereby keeping them in the workforce longer. Yes, it’s all very empowering.

VENEZUELA

Venezuela’s political opposition is now trying to convince top figures in Nicolás Maduro’s Socialist Party to abandon him and form a transitional government. For now at least their back-channel entreaties to both party officials and top military officers appear to be falling on deaf ears, which means any momentum that Juan Guaidó had built up after declaring himself to be Venezuela’s rightful president last month has all but dissipated. Things could change, however, if US oil sanctions really begin to bite into the financial security of Maduro’s inner circle.

In other developments:

  • the opposition has apparently taken control of Venezuela’s Costa Rican embassy, so that’s definitely…something
  • Guaidó says he contacted Swiss President Ueli Maurer on Wednesday about possibly freezing Venezuelan bank accounts in that country, though Swiss officials are disputing that story
  • Amnesty International is accusing Maduro’s security forces of killing at least 41 people and arbitrarily detaining hundreds during large anti-Maduro protests between January 21 and January 25.
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