World update: March 8 2019

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

The Syrian Democratic Forces militia has given the people remaining in Baghouz until Saturday afternoon to evacuate/surrender before it resumes its offensive to take the town from ISIS. Thousands of people have fled Baghouz over the past few weeks in response to the SDF’s advance, mostly civilians but with a few hundred ISIS fighters trying to slip away in the crowds. Many have been herded into a displaced persons camp at al-Hol, which now houses about 62,000 people and is struggling to accommodate them. Many of those still unapologetically support ISIS, in case you were wondering.

IRAQ

A car bombing in Mosul killed at least two people, one of them a child, on Friday. ISIS was presumably responsible though it hasn’t claimed anything.

LEBANON

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on Friday called on supporters to send donations to help the organization survive its current financial straits. Sanctions levied by the United States and now the United Kingdom are putting the squeeze on Hezbollah, and that problem could grow if more Western countries follow suit.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli soldiers shot and killed at least one Palestinian and wounded 42 more during Friday’s demonstrations at the Gaza fence. The Israelis, as they always do, say the protesters were throwing explosives over the fence and attempting to breach it in a couple of places. The Egyptian government continues to try to broker a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, which controls Gaza.

In East Jerusalem, meanwhile, after a good deal of concern that Friday would be a day of protests and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces at al-Aqsa, the day passed in relative calm. The Jordanian government, which oversees the al-Aqsa site, has reportedly been engaged in talks with Israel to calm the situation there, which has been tense in recent weeks over Israel’s ongoing closure of al-Aqsa’s “Gate of Mercy.”

Which is not to say that Friday passed entirely without incident in East Jerusalem–ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered at the Western Wall to prevent a woman’s group from praying there in commemoration of International Women’s Day. Women of the Wall is a group that seeks to establish the right for women to worship at the wall in the same manner as men–wearing the same clothes, reading aloud from the Torah, singing, etc. They are consistently opposed in this by the ultra-Orthodox, who chose to commemorate International Women’s Day by spitting on the women who were there.

SAUDI ARABIA

Saudi officials say their air defenses shot down a drone north of the Yemeni border on Friday that was likely launched by the Houthis. The Saudis claim the drone had “Iranian characteristics,” which I assume means it was covered in a nice carpet and was carrying a pot of tahdig.

ASIA

PAKISTAN

Imran Khan told a crowd in southern Pakistan on Friday that his government “will not allow Pakistan’s land to be used for any kind of outside terrorism,” signaling again that Pakistan is totally super serious about dealing with extremist groups this time, you guys. Khan is admittedly a relatively new prime minister and there’s a chance he represents a real break with all the previous times Pakistani authorities have said they were cracking down on violent extremist groups operating on Pakistani soil only to pretend to do a few cosmetic things and then drop the subject. But Khan is also a prime minister who owes his election to the Pakistani security state and Islamist voters, both of whom support those extremist groups (in the former’s case, materially). If he’s serious, Khan is going to have to overcome a lot of institutional resistance and the popularity of groups like Jaish-e Mohammed among his own base voters in order to achieve real progress.

NORTH KOREA

Jeffrey Lewis pieces together a week’s worth of news about activity at North Korea’s Sohae satellite launch facility and its Sanumdong ballistic missile factory and concludes that Pyongyang may be planning another space launch. While not, strictly speaking, a missile test, a launch may be treated as one anyway by the Trump administration. A space launch at this juncture would almost certainly make it harder for North Korea to restart talks with the US, though this tweet from Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer suggests that ship may have already sailed anyway:

In short, this means the last year of diplomacy since the Singapore summit has been bullshit and the US and North Korea are still stuck on square -1, unable to even agree on the most basic premises of their talks. North Korea isn’t going to do a unilateral disarmament on the hopes the US will reciprocate. Frankly North Korea has no reason to believe the US will reciprocate. And so if this is still the US position it’s hard to see how there can be a basis for productive future talks.

AFRICA

ALGERIA

The largest public protests since the 2011 Arab Spring hit across Algeria on Friday as people continue to demand that ailing (to say the least) President Abdelaziz Bouteflika not run for a fifth term in next month’s election. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out in opposition to Bouteflika’s continued presidency. Algerian state TV reports that some 195 of them were arrested and, more ominously, has started suggesting that the protesters are after “regime change” where previously it’s been using the term “political change.” That’s the kind of shift that could preface a crackdown. At least one other media outlet in Algeria is reporting that several members of Bouteflika’s FLN party have resigned in solidarity with the protesters, though those reports are unconfirmed.

These protests are mostly being led by younger Algerians, which is to be expected. The Algerian government has long quelled popular opposition by appealing to patriotic feelings about the country’s war for independence in the mid 20th century and/or by raising the specter of the country’s ultra-violent 1990s civil war in order to trigger fears of a return to that sort of chaos. But those tricks don’t work on people who are too young to be susceptible to them:

Algeria’s “black decade” experience of the 1990s, when a radical Islamist insurgency and a state crackdown resulted in over 200,000 deaths and a period of isolation, heavily informs these attitudes. By 2011, most Algerians were quite tolerant of an authoritarian political structure that suppressed dissent so long as the country remained relatively stable. From 2011 to 2013, many Algerians concluded from the violence plaguing Egypt, Libya, Mali, Syria, Yemen, and other Arab/Muslim states that challenging the status quo only risked a return to widespread unrest and Islamist terrorism.

Fast forward to February/March 2019. The environment in Algeria has changed. Younger Algerians leading today’s protests are far less willing to embrace this political-acquiescence-for-peace bargain. With almost 70 percent of Algerians below the age of 30, a large percentage of the population did not experience the struggle for independence in the 1950s and 1960s or the violence of the 1990s. These younger Algerians are protesting for a new generation of Algerians to take the helm. In contrast to their parents and grandparents, younger citizens feel far less indebted to the old guard of the ruling National Liberation Front. They are much angrier about rampant corruption, low quality public services, and youth unemployment.

NIGERIA

At least five civilians were killed on Friday when their vehicle hit a landmine planted by Boko Haram outside of Maiduguri.

DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO

Former DRC President Joseph Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC) party will form the country’s next cabinet. For reasons I don’t entirely understand this is being interpreted as a thank you from current President Felix Tshisekedi for Kabila (allegedly) rigging the December 30 presidential election in Tshisekedi’s favor, but the reality is that FCC controls 342 of parliament’s 485 seats. With that kind of majority it would be impossible for any other party to form the government.

EUROPE

FINLAND

Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä and his center-right cabinet resigned on Friday after failing to pass a health care “reform” (i.e., austerity) package that was its main priority before next month’s election. The fact that Finland is scheduled to hold an election next month suggests that the disruption will be minimal.

ITALY

Italy’s coalition government is cracking a bit internally over plans to build a high-speed rail link to France. The League supports the project while the Five Star Movement believes it’s a waste of money. League head Matteo Salvini walked away from talks between the two parties on Friday, a move that seems strategically timed since tenders for the project are to be opened on Monday.

UNITED KINGDOM

European Union Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Friday that the UK could be allowed to unilaterally leave the customs union after Brexit, which is supposed to be a concession to Theresa May but really isn’t. May can’t get her current Brexit arrangement through parliament so she’s looking for the EU to give her something she can take back to London in order to gain some support, but what Barnier is proposing is that the UK could leave the customs union while maintaining a soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, meaning that customs checks would have to be implemented on anything going from Northern Ireland to the rest of the country. That’s a total nonstarter for Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose support is keeping May’s minority government afloat.

Meanwhile, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned that if the EU doesn’t show some flexibility in talks, it could “poison” the future EU-UK relationship. In case you’re keeping score at home, conservatives in the UK have spent months calling the European Union the second-coming of Nazi Germany, but its the EU that’s threatening to poison the relationship. Just wanted to be clear about that.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

Venezuela spent a second day mostly in darkness on Friday as it attempts to restore electricity following Thursday’s mass outage. Officials in Nicolás Maduro’s government continue to blame the United States for causing the outage, though they’ve offered no evidence to support that claim as far as I can tell. It’s certainly not outside the realm of possibility that the US has engineered this power outage, though the simpler explanation remains that Venezuela’s power grid, like the rest of its infrastructure, is falling apart due to lack of funding to maintain it. And since a big part of that lack of funding has to do with US sanctions, maybe it’s fair to say that Washington is at least partly responsible either way.

PERU

Peruvian Prime Minister César Villanueva resigned on Friday basically as a sacrificial offering to President Martín Vizcarra’s falling poll numbers. Vizcarra’s approval rating is still a healthy 56 percent, but that means he’s lost 10 percentage points in just two months and he’s scrambling to stem the bleeding.

UNITED STATES

Earlier this week, Donald Trump issued an executive order revoking an Obama administration rule that required public reporting of the civilian death toll in drone strikes outside of designated war zones. The administration argues that the Pentagon is already required to publicly disclose civilian casualties in its operations, but that elides the fact that the CIA also engages in drone strikes and is not under the same obligations as the Defense Department.

The government’s estimates of the civilian casualties in its drone strikes have always been insultingly low, and Trump has been designating more places as “war zones” in order to evade disclosure requirements anyway, but this is still another signal that this is a president who just doesn’t give a shit how many innocent people his military kills in the course of doing business:

Foreign casualties, of course, even of civilians, will never gain the American public’s attention the way American casualties will. But drone strikes that kill innocent civilians can entail a cost to Americans in the long run beyond basic considerations of humanity and morality. Dead civilians and the resentment that follows their deaths are fodder for extremist groups that preach a message of hate, violence, and revenge—especially revenge against whatever nation caused the deaths. In this respect, drone strikes that run up a civilian death toll constitute a counterproductive aspect of counterterrorism.

Every administration is sensitive to the political downside of war costs, but Trump, more than most U.S. presidents, appears to pay more attention to the politics of the issue than to consistency and effectiveness in the use of military force. Denouncing past involvement in Middle Eastern wars was one of his campaign lines. But once in office he brought into power hawks such as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, who are itching to start another such war. As for drone strikes, Trump has been using them far more than Obama ever did.

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