I won’t be around most of this afternoon and evening, so please accept this midday update to tide you over until tomorrow. Please check out my latest appearance on Chapo Trap House. I spent part of the interview in some kind of strange fugue state unaware of the current date, so you’ll hear me refer to the Iraqi elections happening in “a couple of weeks” when in fact they’re happening on Saturday, and I talk about the US embassy move to Jerusalem happening “later this summer” when in fact it’s happening in ten days. But other than that I think I was lucid.
Syrian rebels began evacuating their last besieged enclave on Monday. Under terms of a deal they struck with Russian authorities last week, the rebels currently occupying a pocket of territory between the cities of Homs and Hama will surrender their heavy weapons and either agree to quit the rebellion or to be evacuated to rebel-held areas in northern Syria. One holdout enclave remains in western Syria, and that’s the Palestinian refugee camp at Yarmouk, which is controlled by ISIS. Fighters there are either intent on making a last stand–which, given that they don’t really have anywhere to go, unlike the rebels, makes some sense–or they’re not being given the chance to surrender–which, given that they’re ISIS, also makes some sense.
Saudi airstrikes pounded Yemen’s presidential palace in Sanaa on Monday, leaving at least six people dead though that number is likely to rise. The AP says the building was “completely flattened” and that several surrounding buildings were “heavily damaged.” It’s unclear if any high-ranking Houthis were in the palace when the Saudis hit it.
The UAE, meanwhile, says it’s only occupying the Yemeni island of Socotra to “shore up” the Yemeni government. Seems like if they want to shore up the Yemeni government they might want to try letting Yemeni Prime Minister Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr off the island, you know? But maybe I’m not seeing all the angles here.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan unveiled his Justice and Development Party’s electoral manifesto on Sunday. It promises a stronger economy, anti-corruption efforts, greater democracy, judicial independence, national security, and, well, more justice and development, I guess. Obviously it’s all pablum, but you have to admire Erdoğan’s ability to promise greater democracy and judicial independence while keeping a straight face. Erdoğan also renewed his commitment to getting Turkey into the European Union, which is less a commitment to actually get Turkey into the EU than it is a commitment to retaining EU accession as a reliable thing Erdoğan can complain about when he needs a bit of a nationalist boost.
ISIS murdered a man in Nineveh province on Sunday night who was running in Saturday’s election. There may be more attacks like this over the next several days as ISIS tries to disrupt the vote.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah delivered a televised address on Monday in which he called Sunday’s election a “great political and moral victory for the resistance option that protects the sovereignty of the country.” Clearly he’s happy with the results, which gave Hezbollah and its March 8 alliance partners a majority in the Lebanese parliament, though Hezbollah itself came out even, with the same 13 seats it had going in. At the other end of the scale, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s Future Movement lost a whopping third of its seats, from 33 to 21, but as it continues to be the largest Sunni party in parliament Hariri’s position as PM (who must be Sunni according to Lebanese law) is probably unassailable. His actual power will nevertheless be substantially diminished, and it wasn’t all that great to begin with.
Should be a fun time tomorrow!
In a televised address of his own, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Monday suggested that a US withdrawal from the nuclear deal might not prompt an Iranian withdrawal–provided the rest of the deal’s signatories make good on their commitments:
“If we can get what we want from a deal without America, then Iran will continue to remain committed to the deal. What Iran wants is our interests to be guaranteed by its non-American signatories … In that case, getting rid of America’s mischievous presence will be fine for Iran.”
“If they want to make sure that we are not after a nuclear bomb, we have said repeatedly that we are not and we will not be,” said Rouhani, who engineered the nuclear accord to ease Iran’s isolation.
“But if they want to weaken Iran and limit its influence whether in the region or globally, Iran will fiercely resist.”
European leaders have promised to uphold the accord even if the US withdraws, but Washington can still make it very difficult for European firms to do business with Iran if the Trump administration employs all the levers it has at its disposal.
The Taliban attacked an Afghan police convoy in Kandahar province on Sunday night, killing five police officers. On Monday, Afghan police in Kabul killed a suicide bomber before he was able to strike his intended target. The bomber’s vest exploded but no casualties apart from him have been reported. It’s not clear what the bomber’s allegiance was.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reports on life in the city of Ghazni, which is so at risk of being overrun by the Taliban that its business owners are already paying protection money to Taliban fighters:
Across the city of Ghazni, store owners and other businesspeople said they had no choice but to pay the Taliban representatives who say they are imposing taxes. The insurgents come once a year and take the money they gather to Mongur, an area outside the city, officials said.
A private radio and television station, next to a police station, had to pay about $1,700, employees said. A small shop on a main road not far from the governor’s office paid a little less than $200, its owner, Hajji Fateh, revealed.
The Organization of Islamic Cooperation held a conference in Bangladesh over the weekend to discuss the Rohingya crisis in Myanmar. Member states issued a joint statement at its conclusion on Sunday in which they described Myanmar’s treatment of the Rohingya as “ethnic cleansing,” and pledged “solidarity” with Bangladesh (whatever that means) as it deals with the refugee influx caused by the crisis.
Jakarta’s state administrative court issued a ruling on Monday upholding a 2017 presidential decree that outlawed the Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. Indonesian President Joko Widodo banned Hizb ut-Tahrir, a global organization that calls for a restoration of the caliphate and has been banned in several other countries, due to suspicions that it was fomenting violent extremism, even though Hizb ut-Tahrir itself espouses non-violence. The group has since been challenging its ban in court.
Paul Pillar says that Donald Trump is buying into his own hype (shocking, I know) about the role he’s played in motivating North Korea’s new charm offensive:
The specific notion in question is that pressure from Trump’s administration has succeeded in making North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un less belligerent and more accommodating than he was before. But pressure on North Korea is nothing new, as a matter of policy either of previous U.S. administrations or of the international community. There is somewhat more plausibility to the notion if pressure is viewed less in terms of economic sanctions than of the possibility of Trump’s administration launching a military attack on North Korea. The plausibility comes from Trump’s impulsive nature and the presence of a trigger-happy security advisor such as John Bolton. Deconstruct the notion a bit more, however, and one runs into the probability that a U.S. attack would elicit a North Korean response that would, even at the conventional level, involve large-scale casualties in South Korea and might well involve the use of nuclear weapons. Kim has displayed enough shrewdness to be able to reason all of this out and to conclude that even Trump would be unlikely to commit the folly of initiating such a war.
Moreover, although a genuine breakthrough in North Korea’s relationship with the rest of the world is possible, it has not yet occurred. Nothing has yet been achieved that materially advances the significant interests of the United States, world peace, or nuclear nonproliferation. The current thaw is the latest chapter in a history of Kim and his father interspersing threats with detente. The biggest benefit so far in the Kim-Trump relationship has gone to Kim with the promise of a summit meeting, in which the young dictator would meet on an equal footing with the leader of the most powerful country in the world.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry says that last week’s technical talks between representatives from Egypt, Ethiopia, and Sudan failed to make any progress toward an understanding over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The three countries remain at loggerheads over estimates as to the dam’s impact on the downstream water flow on the Nile.
Nine Kenyan peacekeepers were killed in Somalia over the weekend by al-Shabab. The Kenyan government hasn’t officially explained what happened, but unconfirmed reports say they were killed by an improvised explosive device near the town of Dhobley in southern Somalia.
Vladimir Putin was inaugurated for his fourth term as Russian president on Monday in a fairly low-key affair. His first act, reappointing Dmitry Medvedev as his prime minister, showed that the band is mostly staying together. Putin says he wants to reduce poverty and raise Russia’s average life expectancy from 72 to 78 over the next six years.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš says he expects to complete talks on forming a governing coalition with the Social Democratic Party by the end of this week. The country has been without a stable government since Babiš’s ANO party won a plurality in October’s election. If the two parties do strike a deal, it will then be subject to a referendum of Social Democratic Party members, which should be completed by early June.
Italian President Sergio Mattarella gave up on the idea of forming a long-term government on Monday and called for the formation of an interim “neutral” government that would run the country through the end of the year. Its two overarching priorities would be establishing a 2019 budget and preparing for an orderly new election next year, and under Mattarella’s plan anyone who served in this temporary government would pledge not to run in that election. Unfortunately for Mattarella, both the League and the Five Star Movement immediately came out in opposition to this idea, and if they stick to that opposition they can sink any interim government in parliament. That makes it more likely that Italy will be holding a new vote sometime before the end of the year.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) has ridden an anti-corruption message to a prohibitive lead in polling ahead of July’s presidential election. But he’s a leftist, so naturally the Mexican establishment is fighting hard to quash his candidacy over fears of, I don’t know, Communism I guess:
Amlo has sought to assuage such fears by naming a team of highly educated experts as his cabinet and promising business leaders there will be “no expropriations, no nationalisations” if he wins.
He denies claims he is seeking to drag Latin America’s second largest economy back into the past. “If this horror we’re living now is what they want to give us in the future, the past is preferable,” Amlo told one recent rally.
But as the clock ticks down to July’s election, Mexico’s answer to Project Fear is intensifying its operations in a last-ditch bid to thwart Amlo’s push for power.
Oil is expensive again. The likelihood that Donald Trump will pull the US out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on Iran pushed the price for American crude up over $70 per barrel on Monday for the first time since 2014. Higher prices on the international market have caused domestic US oil producers to sell more of their product outside the US, contributing to the rise in domestic prices.
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