World update: April 23 2018



The Syrian military kept up its bombardment of Yarmouk for another day on Monday, though it says it targeted only areas still under ISIS control. Apparently some of the group’s fighters are refusing to leave despite the surrender agreement they negotiated with the Syrian government late last week.


The Saudi-led coalition struck another blow for freedom and justice late Sunday by bombing a wedding in northwestern Yemen and killing at least 20 people. At least 50 others were reportedly injured, many quite severely. Remember, the Saudis are being generously assisted in their target selection and accuracy by US advisers and weapons. So we have to assume that when they bomb a wedding, it’s not a mistake.

Meanwhile, on Monday the Houthi rebels said that the head of their Supreme Political Council, Saleh al-Sammad, was killed last Thursday in an airstrike in Hudaydah. He’s believed to be the most senior casualty the Houthis have suffered in the war so far.


The International Organization for Migration says that 123,996 displaced Iraqis returned home in March a four percent increase over February. There are still more than 2.2 million Iraqis displaced.


Human Rights Watch says that Cairo’s campaign against militants in Sinai is preventing food and medicine from getting to civilians there. The Egyptian government denies this, of course, but HRW says it spoke to residents in Sinai who reported the shortages.

Egypt’s parliament on Sunday passed a law banning the cultivation of water-intensive crops like rice and bananas. The reason has to do with the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Authorities fear that the dam will cut water flow on the Nile.


Al-Monitor’s Bryant Harris runs through the range of choices facing Donald Trump with respect to the Iran nuclear deal over the next few weeks. It’s a broad range. He could, of course, opt to do nothing at all. He could announce that he’s reimposing US sanctions, but then slow-roll their reimposition to allow more time for negotiations on “strengthening” the deal. Or he could only impose a few relatively minor token sanctions and call it a day. Then again, he could reimpose the full breadth of US sanctions, including secondary sanctions that would threaten foreign banks and other businesses that engage with Iran.

At the harshest end of the scale, Trump could trigger the deal’s dispute resolution process, which automatically reinstates international sanctions against Iran provided the dispute, whatever it is, doesn’t get resolved. Which it wouldn’t, since the whole point would be to reimpose those sanctions. Because the deal was designed to protect against a rogue action by Iran, rather than a rogue action by one of the P5+1 states, it doesn’t really have a mechanism that the other parties to the deal could use to block Trump from wrecking the whole thing if he chose to go that route.



Serzh Sargsyan has resigned as PM only days after taking the job in an effort to remain the leader of Armenia despite having been term limited out of the presidency. This is a stunning result of days of protests against Sargsyan’s job change, and it was made possible at least in part by the fact that Armenian soldiers, unarmed but in uniform, had begun to turn up among the crowds of demonstrators in Yerevan. I guess Sargsyan saw the writing on the wall.

Sargsyan’s departure…well, it may not change much of anything about Armenian politics. He’s been replaced on an interim basis by his predecessor as PM, Karen Karapetyan, and he might stick around. More fundamentally, there’s no organized Armenian opposition that can really counter Sargsyan’s Republican Party, and as Sargsyan still, as far as I know, intends to remain party boss. From that post he can rule Armenia almost as completely, informally, as he would have as prime minister, formally.


At least 14 Afghan soldiers and police officers were killed in two coordinated Taliban attacks in Baghdis province on Monday, while another four police officers were killed in another Taliban attack in Farah province. ISIS, over the weekend, beheaded three brothers in Nangarhar province who were all working in the medical field in some capacity.


Nobody expects that China’s One Belt, One Road initiative should be run as a charity for emerging Eurasian economies, but on the other hand there appear to be some genuine risks to countries that choose to participate in it:

In March 2018, the Center for Global Development, a U.S. think tank based in Washington, published a fascinating report. It claimed that China was posing a severe risk to the finances of a number of countries as a result of its aid activities and excessive lending. The report went on to list seven specific countries whose finances are at serious risk: Mongolia, Laos, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, the Maldives, Djibouti, and Montenegro.


When advanced countries give out loans or other forms of aid, they generally impose a cap. This prevents them from lending excessive amounts. China, however, is not a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Nor is it a member of the Development Assistance Committee, the division of the OECD that regulates aid policy. This can present problems for borrowers. If a country borrows to the point that its fiscal health is at risk, that is a serious problem. How will it repay the loans? It is not unreasonable to expect that it might have to use controlling interests in ports, mines or other infrastructure as collateral to facilitate the repayments.


As the much anticipated Trump-Kim Jong-un summit approaches, the more it seems clear that we should all set our expectations pretty low in terms of what it might produce. Kim’s agreement to suspend nuclear and missile testing is a nice gesture, but it isn’t a major sacrifice for someone who has already developed a hydrogen bomb and an intercontinental ballistic missile. In fact, the suspension could buy Kim time to produce additional ICBM launchers and expand the size of his arsenal while keeping its level of sophistication frozen.

But even low expectations might be too optimistic. The worst case scenario for this summit has been and continues to be that Kim and Trump walk into a room with vastly different understandings of what “denuclearization” means (Trump believes it means North Korea will disarm, while Kim clearly does not share that interpretation), and that one or both of them comes away from the meeting angrier than they were going into it. Both Trump and Kim have themselves set expectations unrealistically high, which raises the threat considerably:

The countries are already treating the meeting less as the start of a long and difficult process, in which both would need to make painful compromises for narrow gains, but as the culmination of what each seems to see as its glorious triumph over the other.


But those two imagined victories are mutually exclusive and, barring a drastic strategic shift by either country, categorically unacceptable to the other side.


If both leaders are setting themselves up to fall short of the lofty expectations on which each has staked his reputation and ego, [nuclear historian Alex] Wellerstein tweeted, “what happens when this (inevitably) becomes clear?”


Meanwhile, Kim is due to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in later this week in Panmunjom. As a gesture of good faith, over the weekend the South Korean government turned off the propaganda program that it regularly broadcasts across the border.



The AP reports on the US airbase, primarily intended as a base for drone operations, currently under construction outside of Agadez:

On the scorching edge of the Sahara Desert, the U.S. Air Force is building a base for armed drones, the newest front in America’s battle against the growing extremist threat in Africa’s vast Sahel region.


Three hangars and the first layers of a runway command a sandy, barren field. Niger Air Base 201 is expected to be functional early next year. The base, a few miles outside Agadez and built at the request of Niger’s government, will eventually house fighter jets and MQ-9 drones transferred from the capital Niamey. The drones, with surveillance and added striking capabilities, will have a range enabling them to reach a number of West and North African countries.


The death toll from this weekend’s protests in Madagascar now stands at two, and President Hery Rajaonarimampianina called on Monday for an end to the protests. Protesters are angry over proposed changes to the country’s electoral law that would protect Rajaonarimampianina from a challenge by former President Marc Ravalomanana.



The Greek government has rejected an offer from Turkey to exchange two Greek border guards it detained in March for eight Turkish soldiers who sought asylum in Greece after the failed Turkish coup in 2016. This is basically an admission that Turkey is holding those two Greek soldiers hostage, but I digress. The Greek government says that they accidentally crossed into Turkey in bad weather and says they should be released with no strings attached.


Italian President Sergio Mattarella has appointed Roberto Fico, member of the Five Star Movement and new speaker of the lower house of Italy’s parliament, to mediate talks between Five Star and the center-left Democratic Party on forming a governing coalition. How a member of Five Star could possibly be expected to mediate his own party’s negotiations with another party is beyond me, but I guess it makes sense to Mattarella.



It seems new Paraguayan President-elect Mario Abdo Benítez’s Colorado Party did a bit better than expected in senate voting on Sunday. Projected to lose seven seats in pre-election polls, it looks now like it will only lose three.


Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s decision to reverse his planned payroll tax increases and social security cuts has not had its intended effect. Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Managua anyway on Monday, demanding the resignations of Ortega and his wife/vice president, Rosario Murillo.


Obviously the biggest story of the day was this afternoon’s horrific van attack in Toronto, which has claimed the lives of at least 10 people. A man identified as Alek Minassian, who may be a student at Seneca College, reportedly drove a rented van up onto a sidewalk into pedestrians. He was then stopped by police and, brandishing a gun, engaged in a standoff in which he appeared to encourage the officers to kill him. Minassian’s motives are unknown, though he may have been having trouble with his dating life–at any rate, there’s no evidence at this point that he’s got ties to any terrorist organizations.


Islamophobic goon Mike Pompeo will definitely be your next Secretary of State, and you have right-wing Democrats partly to thank for it. Though it’s not all their fault. Principled  antiwar Republican Senator Rand Paul had pledged to vote against Pompeo, both in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and in the full senate. This would have resulted in Pompeo losing the SFRC vote, and while that wouldn’t have kept his nomination from the full senate it would have been a massive embarrassment to both him and the Trump administration. Pompeo being a hawk, and Rand Paul being a principled antiwar leader, you can understand why Paul had no choice but to vote agai–I’m sorry there’s a new report just coming in:

Mike Pompeo won a favorable vote Monday from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after Sen. Rand Paul flipped to endorse him, paving an unexpectedly easy path for the CIA director to win confirmation as secretary of state as soon as this week.


Pompeo appeared all but guaranteed to draw an unfavorable recommendation from the committee, with Paul firmly opposed, until the Kentucky Republican opted to vote ‘yes‘ after getting a personal appeal from President Donald Trump. Had Paul not changed his stance, Pompeo was on track to become only the third nominee in two decades to get a negative report in committee — and likely the first in that time to win a vote in the full Senate.

It seems principled Rand Paul got “assurances” from Donald Trump that Trump sees the Iraq War as a mistake and wants to wind down US involvement in Afghanistan. And he can surely trust those kinds of “assurances” coming from Trump, who is definitely not a pathological liar who frequently appears to be suffering from some sort of prion disease. Anyway, thank goodness that Rand Paul is such a principled man.

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