World update: April 4 2019

Don’t forget I’m moving to Substack! For this first week at the new site I’m posting updates there and here, but as of next week attwiw.com will no longer be active. You’ll need to head over to Substack and subscribe, so why not do that today?

MIDDLE EAST

SYRIA

According to local civil defense offices and international observers, the Syrian military killed at least 12 people in shelling rebel-held Idlib province and adjoining parts of Aleppo and Hama provinces on Thursday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is citing a slightly higher figure, 17 killed, in government shelling around the rebel-held zone over the past 24 hours. The Syrian government continues to suggest that its patience with the rebels in Idlib is “running out,” but apart from this kind of episodic shelling it hasn’t made a move to upend the Russian-Turkish deescalation agreement governing the area.

YEMEN

The US House of Representatives passed a War Powers resolution on Thursday that would end US involvement in the Yemen war if it weren’t certain to draw a veto from Donald Trump. This is the second time the House has passed the resolution but, for technical reasons, it had to vote a second time on the specific resolution that passed the Senate last month. As I say there will be no practical outcome to the vote since Trump is going to veto (OK, I’m 99 percent certain he’s going to veto), but it’s a landmark vote nonetheless in that it’s the first time Congress has voted under the War Powers Act to end US military activity abroad. It could set a precedent for Congress clawing back some of the foreign policy authority it’s ceded to the presidency over the past several decades, although “could” is doing a lot of work there.

TURKEY

The partial recount in Istanbul’s mayoral race hasn’t produced enough of a change in votes to threaten apparent winner Ekrem İmamoğlu’s victory, though it has narrowed his margin slightly. So, of course, Turkish election officials are going to expand the recount. Officials previously ordered a full recount in three Istanbul districts and counts only of rejected ballot boxes in another 15. Now they’ve ordered a full recount in those 15 districts and, if pressed by the ruling Justice and Development Party, will probably go to a full citywide recount. Would election officials go to these lengths if the opposition had lost and was contesting the outcome? Probably not. This is why there are concerns over the impartiality of the people who are supposed to be impartially counting the votes.

SAUDI ARABIA

Hey, awesome news: the Saudis are probably only a few months away from having a functioning nuclear reactor. Retired nuclear inspector Robert Kelly has made that determination after looking at satellite images of the King Abdulaziz city for science and technology outside of Riyadh. That the Saudis haven’t let anybody know they’re actually building a nuclear plant is just one of the many reasons to be extremely happy about this development. It looks like a small reactor that will probably only be useful for training technicians, but it will mean the Saudis are nuclear-capable, with only their signature on the Non-Proliferation Treaty as assurance that they’re not going to weaponize things. The Saudis have rejected any talk of inspections or other safeguards against weaponization, and lucky for them the Trump administration seems fine with that. Now Reuters is reporting that the Saudis may issue a tender for building their first two full-blown nuclear power plants as soon as next year. So exciting!

IRAN

Hey, you know that super-secret, definitely sinister nuclear warehouse that the Israelis said they discovered in Tehran last year and that Iran was supposedly shielding from international inspectors? Well it’s apparently been inspected. The International Atomic Energy Agency reportedly visited the site last month and presumably didn’t find any evidence that Iran was about to nuke anything or else we probably would’ve heard about it. In theory, of course, the Iranians have had months to sanitize the site, and I’m sure that’s how the Bomb Bomb Iran crowd will rationalize it if the IAEA didn’t find anything of note there.

ASIA

AFGHANISTAN

Taliban attackers killed at least 20 Afghan soldiers and police officers in a strike early Thursday against a “government compound” in Badghis province. That death toll is likely low, as the attack led to a sustained battle throughout most of the day. Elsewhere, a bombing in Baghlan province killed at least one person and wounded 18, and another in Nangarhar province wounded at least five. Neither the Taliban nor ISIS claimed responsibility for either.

The Trump administration has revoked the entry visa for Fatou Bensouda, the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor, because she’s investigating alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. Bensouda will still be able to get into the country for United Nations business, probably, but the effect here is both to intimidate her and limit her ability to investigate US personnel.

INDIA

Naxalite rebels ambushed a patrol of Indian paramilitaries in Chhattisgarh state on Thursday, killing at least four of them.

MYANMAR

Locals are saying that a Myanmar military helicopter opened fire on a group of Rohingya on Wednesday, killing at least five of them and wounding several more. The Rohingya were reportedly gathering bamboo, though the military says there’s some “true news” about the incident that it will release at some point. Seems plausible.

THAILAND

Now that the fallout from Thailand’s transition to “democracy” is beginning to play out, it’s becoming clear just how much the new system is rigged to keep the military in control:

The first electoral test for that new system came last week when Thailand finally held its long-delayed parliamentary election. And though the results are not yet official, it is already clear that the regime’s system is doing what it was designed to do: splintering the pro-democracy opposition, and entrenching the junta’s authority.

“Thailand is headed to a military-guided, authoritarian system,” said Purawich Watanasukh, a research fellow at the independent King Prajadhipok’s Institute in Bangkok.

CHINA

Donald Trump met with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He at the White House on Thursday. The two were expected to discuss plans for a summit between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping to put the finishing touches on a new trade agreement, but they apparently concluded that the two sides are still too far apart to schedule such an event. Negotiators have reportedly made considerable progress in crafting a deal, but Trump is reluctant to completely lift tariffs on Chinese goods because he continues to believe that China pays those tariffs instead of US consumers. He’s of course wrong but that’s never stopped him before.

Trump National Security Advisor John Bolton once suggested that if the United Nations headquarters “lost ten stories” (I’m sure he meant nonviolently, probably) nobody would know the difference. He’s spent his entire stint in the Trump White House basically ignoring the UN, which is administration policy when it’s not actively trying to sabotage the place. But now Bolton is apparently worried that China is gaining too much influence at the UN, and he’s spearheading an administration effort to erode as much of that influence as possible. If China’s global stature is growing then it’s at least partly because the Trump administration’s violation of multiple international agreements, hostility toward international institutions, rejection of multilateral diplomacy, and decision to stop even paying lip service to so-called American values, has left a void that Beijing is best positioned to fill.

AFRICA

LIBYA

Warlord Khalifa Haftar on Thursday ordered his “Libyan National Army” to march on Tripoli in the most direct threat he’s made toward Libya’s internationally recognized government yet. Haftar sent his forces into western Libya on Wednesday, calling on them to “cleanse” the region of any “remaining terrorist groups.” But the explicit call for an offensive against the capital has Libya on the verge of backsliding into full scale civil war again. Amid calls for deescalation from the UN and several Western countries, Haftar’s forces reportedly seized control of a checkpoint west of Tripoli later in the day, after having two of its soldiers injured in clashes along the way.

The most ominous development Thursday may have been this Reuters report that militia forces from the city of Misrata have reportedly begun moving toward Tripoli to counter the LNA’s advance. The Misratan militias, which are allied with the government and generally opposed to Haftar, are probably Libya’s second-most capable armed force after the LNA, and if those two forces come to blows in Tripoli then nothing the international community does is likely to keep things from getting very bad.

NIGERIA

ISIS-West Africa Province says that its fighters have killed 18 soldiers—13 of them from the Nigerian military and five from a regional task force whose forces are also drawn from Cameroon, Chad, and Niger—in a series of clashes since Friday. Neither the Nigerian military nor the task force commented on the claim.

SOMALIA

A car bombing outside a police academy in Mogadishu on Thursday evening wounded at least seven people. Al-Shabab later claimed responsibility.

EUROPE

NATO

NATO foreign ministers met in Washington on Thursday to celebrate the alliance’s 70th anniversary, and boy did things go great. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo managed to have beef with the foreign ministers of Germany, Turkey, and Canada, all over bad blood that’s built up between them and the Trump administration over the past two years.

SPAIN

New polling by the newspaper El Pais has Spain’s ruling Socialist Party holding on to its support ahead of Spain’s election later this month. The Socialists are at 28.6 percent, level with last month and still obviously far short of a majority. None of the poll’s findings were particularly remarkable apart from the far right Vox party dropping a point, from 12.1 percent to 11 percent.

UNITED KINGDOM

Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn will resume their talks on a Brexit compromise on Friday, with May expected to present Corbyn with a written outline of her offer. May isn’t expected to move much from the Brexit agreement she’s already hawking, the one that’s lost three separate votes in parliament—rather, she’s reportedly planning on explaining her deal to Corbyn and winning him over to it, I guess. Her hands may be tied to some degree here in that the European Union would need to be involved in any talks about changing the terms of Brexit, but even so I wouldn’t expect this plan to meet with much success. One interesting wrinkle is that May could offer to attach the option for a national referendum to any Brexit deal that manages to get through parliament, so that MPs could vote to give the British public a final say on the terms of their departure from the EU.

AMERICAS

VENEZUELA

A new report from Human Rights Watch and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health finds that Venezuela’s healthcare system is collapsing, with multiple diseases—many preventable—running rampant. The report calls on the United Nations to declare a “humanitarian emergency” in Venezuela, which would allow it to pressure Nicolás Maduro’s government into allowing aid into the country. The UN has been reluctant to take a position on Venezuela’s political crisis and consequently has largely stayed out of its humanitarian crisis as well.

UNITED STATES

Finally, at the Fellow Travelers Blog, New America’s David Sterman argues that progressives should approach the 2020 election as a much-needed chance to get a handle on the drone war after the past two presidents allowed it to get out of hand:

Since he took office, President Donald Trump has overseen unprecedented escalations in America’s counterterrorism and drone wars in Yemen and Somalia while simultaneously ramping up secrecy around the drone strike program. In some ways the escalations are no surprise, as Trump campaigned in part on extreme violence as a counterterrorism strategy, including arguing for killing terrorists’ families – an act which would be a war crime. Some reports have suggested this attitude found expression within the policy process.

Yet careful tracking of the America’s counterterrorism wars by New America shows that the violent rhetoric is hardly a prerequisite for widespread use of drone strikes by presidents of either party. The Trump administration’s counterterrorism strategy has substantial commonalities with the Obama administration’s approach, and the Obama strategy took many of its cues from the Bush administration. Different administrations have talked about drones and airstrikes in different ways, but such strikes have become a key part of a bipartisan counterterrorism consensus. As a new crop of presidential candidates pledge progressive approaches to foreign policy problems, voters are owed answers about whether and how candidates will meaningfully change American counterterrorism policy.

The 2020 election provides a rare opportunity for progressives to reshape – or even end – America’s counterterrorism wars abroad. If progressives hope to chart a different path, they will have to both be prepared with new policy ideas and have wrestled with the ways Trump’s wars continue Obama’s wars. Under President Trump, much of the conduct of operations was delegated to commanders. A progressive presidency that doesn’t explicitly address the issue and come prepared with policy ideas will likely end up allowing these existing policy processes to continue. A progressive presidency that accepts general rhetoric about the danger of “stupid” wars in the Middle East as sufficient will have failed to learn the lessons of the Obama administration: that a general skepticism regarding U.S. wars abroad is not a barrier to escalation nor a guarantee of timely, transparent reporting of the wars being waged.

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