World update, part 1: March 27 2019

Hello and welcome to our next-to-last week here at WordPress! I’m packing things up and moving to Substack starting next week, when I’ll be posting in both places by way of transitioning to the new site.

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

Israeli warplanes targeted an industrial area north of Aleppo on Wednesday, presumably going after facilities linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Syrian air defenses intercepted some Israeli missiles, reportedly, but there was damage to “materials” in the area. No reports of casualties though.

More evidence of Donald Trump’s skills as a uniter are emerging from Syria, where Syrians in cities across the country demonstrated on Tuesday against the US decision to recognize the Golan as Israeli territory. These protests took place mostly in cities under Syrian government control, but that includes places like Daraa and Hama where pro-rebel sentiment was once pretty high, as well as a couple of major towns in Kurdish-held parts of the country. See? It’s all about healing the wounds of war. That’s what Trump is, a healer.

The United Nations Security Council also came together, in an emergency session (at Syria’s request) over the Golan declaration on Wednesday. Since none of the European members of the council have agreed with Trump’s move the US is likely to be isolated on the council, but that doesn’t really matter when you’ve got a veto. Israel’s annexation of the Golan is a direct violation of the UN charter, but in order to say that matters you have to believe that the United States believes itself to be subject to international law when clearly it does not. Since international law is only relevant to the extent somebody is willing to enforce it, and nobody is willing to enforce it against the United States and its $750 billion/year military, the US is correct in its belief.

YEMEN

Don’t look now, but cholera is raging across Yemen again. Some parts of the country are reportedly seeing upwards of 2000 new cases each week, and nationally over 100,000 cases have been reported so far this year. The disease, endemic to Yemen but greatly exacerbated by the ongoing war, hit over one million people (suspected, not confirmed) at the height of its most recent outbreak, back in 2017.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israeli soldiers on Wednesday shot and killed a 17 year old Palestinian medic in a refugee camp outside of Bethlehem. The medic was reportedly wearing a reflective vest identifying him as such, but the Israelis were apparently firing indiscriminately after a crowd of Palestinians in the camp began throwing rocks at them. Israeli officials blamed the incident on a “riot” in the camp, but it’s a riot that began in response to those soldiers entering the camp in the first place.

In Gaza, meanwhile, things seem…calm. Calm enough, anyway, that Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh appeared in public to tour the remains of his office after it was bombed by Israeli forces earlier this week. The truce Egypt brokered on Tuesday appears to have taken hold after a brief exchange of fire on Tuesday evening. I wouldn’t put any money on the prospects for it holding very long.

SAUDI ARABIA

According to Reuters, Energy Secretary Rick Perry has green lit “six secret authorizations” for US firms to do “preliminary” nuclear work for Saudi Arabia. This is part of a larger Trump administration effort to sell nuclear technology to the Saudis, maybe bypassing Congress since the Saudis aren’t too keen on accepting the safeguards against weaponization that are supposed to accompany any US nuclear deal.

IRAN

Unsurprisingly, Donald Trump’s decision to abrogate the Iran nuclear deal may have poisoned the well for diplomacy with Iran even after he’s left office. Over 70 percent of Iranians now believe it’s not worth it for Iran to enter into international agreements because the other parties are unlikely to uphold their obligations. While several Democratic 2020 candidates have said they would rejoin the nuclear deal, which would be good, that’s clearly not going to be enough on its own to spur additional talks over issues like Iran’s missile program, its role in Syria, and the future of its nuclear program.

ASIA

AZERBAIJAN

Leaders of Azerbaijan’s predominantly Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh region are understandably interested in Trump’s Golan decision for the implications it might have with respect to their own situation:

In the case of the Golan Heights, there are particular resonances with the dispute between Armenians and Azerbaijan. The Golan Heights are internationally recognized (except, now, by the U.S.) as part of Syria, but Israel took control of them in a war in 1967. Occupying a strategic high ground, Israelis see the region as a key element of its security.

The analogues with Karabakh – and particularly the seven surrounding districts that Armenians occupy after winning them in a war that ended in 1994 – are inescapable.

[Separatist spokesman David] Babayan called particular attention to the importance of the Golan Heights for Israel’s water security. “There is symbolism here throughout,” he said. “Even the announcement was made on the eve of World Water Day, and the Golan Heights is above all a water supply for Israel, the head of Israel’s great biblical river Jordan.”

Babayan added that Trump’s announcement opens the door for Armenians to “even more actively promote the importance of Karvachar as a critical component of the security of Armenia and Artsakh,” he said. Karvachar – known in Azerbaijani as Kelbajar– is one of the seven occupied territories. Artsakh is the Armenian word for Nagorno Karabakh. “After all Karvachar, like the Golan Heights, is a source of water supply … not to use the statement of a great power in this context is simply unacceptable.”

AFGHANISTAN

In a development that was as inevitable as it is dangerous for the peace process, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani reportedly feels “betrayed” by the US decision to negotiate directly with the Taliban and cut his government out of the loop. Regardless of how you feel about the desirability of direct US-Taliban talks, they have largely delegitimized Ghani’s government, with which the Taliban refuses to talk. Presumably the only way forward will be for Ghani to step aside in favor of an interim government that can manage the reconciliation process, but he’s shown no inclination to do so and could be a very big spoiler if he refuses to go quietly.

Among the groups likely to suffer the most under a peace agreement that brings the Taliban back into some degree of power is (along with women) the Hazara, and this would not be the first time they’ve suffered under the Taliban:

Hazaras, most of whom are Shiite Muslims, are considered heretics by the Taliban and the Islamic State, two Sunni Muslim groups. They have been persecuted since Afghanistan’s Pashtun emir targeted Hazaras for mass killings and forced removals in the late 19th century. Some were sold as slaves.

Although Afghanistan has no national census, Hazaras are believed to make up roughly 10 to 20 percent of the country’s 35 million people.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, they orchestrated mass killings of Hazaras in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1998 and in central Bamian Province in 2000 and 2001. Hazaras were forced in early 2001 to dangle from cliff faces to drill holes for explosives the Taliban used to topple the ancient Buddha statues of Bamian, carved from sandstone cliffs more than 1,500 years ago.

More recently, hundreds of Hazara families were driven from their homes during Taliban offensives last fall against government forces and Hazara militias in the provinces of Uruzgan and Ghazni, part of a traditional Hazara homeland known as Hazarajat.

KASHMIR

The US is pushing a new UN Security Council resolution to blacklist Jaish-e-Mohammed boss Masood Azhar. China, because of its alliance with Pakistan, has blocked every previous effort to sanction Azhar, and there’s no particular reason to think this time will be any different.

INDIA

The Indian military appears to have successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon on Wednesday, making it the fourth country known to possess that technology, along with the US, Russia, and China. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in high campaign mode, naturally made a big deal about the test–and may have run afoul of Indian campaign laws in the process. India’s Election Commission is now investigating Modi’s announcement of the test to determine whether he broke the rules.

THAILAND

A coalition of seven parties opposed to Thailand’s military junta, led by the Pheu Thai party, says it now controls 255 seats in the country’s new 500 seat lower house of parliament, and therefore should form its next government. Which would make sense if the 250 seat upper house wasn’t entirely appointed by the junta and whose votes are equally important in choosing the next government. Mathematically the anti-junta parties don’t really seem to have a path to forming the government unless the military for some reason decides to go along with it.

NORTH KOREA

General Robert Abrams, commander of US forces in South Korea, told the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday that North Korea is behaving in a manner “inconsistent with denuclearization.” Presumably that means they’re still producing nuclear material and missiles, though they continue to freeze testing on both fronts. It’s hard to know on what basis the Pentagon is basing this claim, since the US and North Korea haven’t even established a baseline definition of “denuclearization,” let alone a commitment for North Korea to achieve it.

In the wake of the failure of the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi, which he argues was partly due to “overreach,” the International Crisis Group’s Christopher Green makes the case for refocusing talks with Pyongyang on more modest goals:

A third summit seems out of the question in the immediate future. And rewinding to the negotiating positions going into Hanoi will not be productive. But there is a possible way forward.

A more realistic deal that should have been put on the table at Hanoi could now be the basis for next steps. That deal would see North Korea trade the fully verified closure of all or part of the Yongbyon complex for the reopening of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a light manufacturing zone on the inter-Korean border. This economic incentive, which would require a measure of sanctions relief, could be bundled with the restart of inter-Korean tourism at Mt. Kumgang and in the city of Kaesong, plus South Korean investments in remediating the deficiencies of North Korean transport infrastructure.

The deal could be accompanied by a declaration formally ending the Korean War, detailed talks on the opening of liaison offices in Pyongyang and Washington, or both. This would at least to some extent address North Korea’s security concerns in the process of addressing its economic ones.

These modest steps would help build goodwill for ongoing negotiations, but they would also involve making concessions toward North Korea, which the administration seems reluctant to do.

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