World update: May 11 2018

Just one and done tonight, sorry.



If you’re terrified that Israel and Iran are about to go to war in Syria, Ha’aretz reporter Anshel Pfeffer is here to tell you it’s all going to be OK:

This year, the Iran-Israel war has suddenly come out in to the open, with both sides directly challenging each other on the ground and in the skies above Syria. In February Iran sent a drone carrying explosives in to Israeli airspace, where it was promptly shot down. In the months since, Israel has carried out a series of airstrikes on Iranian bases and weapon depots within Syria. On Wednesday night Iranian forces retaliated with a salvo of rockets against Israeli army positions on the Golan Heights. Israel responded immediately with its largest series of airstrikes on Syria since 1974.


But neither side actually wants to go to war. Iran, which has invested billions in ensuring Bashar al-Assad’s survival, is interested in creating a balance of deterrence against Israel by building permanent bases in Syria. Israel wants to prevent that from happening, and its leadership believes it could perhaps achieve even more, without going to war.

Well, it’s not actually going to be OK, but it is true that neither country wants to go to war with the other. Israel wants to isolate Iran diplomatically, if necessary by provoking Iran into attacking Israel, and make it painful for Iran to stay in Syria. Iran would like to avoid a war that would most likely escalate to a war between Iran and the US in short order. Logistics are another problem–it’s one thing for Israel and Iran to take pot shots at one another in Syria, but a full-scale war between two countries that far apart is hard to conceive. One other reason why these two countries are unlikely to really come to blows? Vladimir Putin won’t allow it.

Speaking of Putin, it seems that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has talked him out of sending any Russian S-300 surface to air missiles to Syria. Netanyahu visited Russia earlier this week, and suddenly the advanced defense systems Russia was keen to send to Syria after the mid-April Western airstrikes are no longer on their way. The Russians insist that Netanyahu’s visit had nothing to do with it, they had never committed to sending S-300s to Syria in the first place.


A Turkish vessel carrying wheat to Yemen exploded in the Red Sea on Thursday and had to be towed to the Saudi port of Jizan. It’s unclear if the explosion happened internally or if the ship was struck by a missile.


Patrick Wing says that Popular Mobilization Units have depopulated parts of western Nineveh province and are refusing to allow many civilians to return because they’re suspected of having links to ISIS. Long-term displacement seems like it’s going to be a fact of life in Iraq for years to come.


Israeli forces yet again fired on Palestinian protesters in Gaza on Friday, killing at least one and wounding dozens more. The Gaza protests will reach their climax next week with the 70th anniversary of the Nakba.

Mark Katz sees Russian and Israeli interests aligning more and more. For different reasons, both Netanyahu and Putin should be please with Donald Trump’s decision to break the Iran nuclear deal (Netanyahu for the obvious reasons, and Putin because the decision isolates the US diplomatically). And all these Israeli strikes against Iranian positions in Syria might help Putin too. Russia and Iran have been allies in Syria, but their interests don’t align all that well in the long-run and it would be better for Moscow if Iran’s presence in Syria were diminished.


The Intercept’s Alex Emmons reports that the State Department is preparing to approve a multi-billion dollar sale of new “precision” bombs to Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Just in case you were worried that they might run out of things to drop on Yemeni soup kitchens and the like. The sale could run into problems in the Senate, but I find when it comes to the Senate you’re better off assuming it will never do the right thing.


European leaders are working hard to try to salvage the Iran nuclear deal. France in particular is pushing for European-wide policies to defend their firms from running afoul of US sanctions in order to protect Europe’s “economic sovereignty.” Ultimately I think Europe will cave to the new sanctions, perhaps framing it as a decision to punish Iran for its missile program or something to save a little bit of face. But transatlantic relations could be in for an even rougher ride than usual for the next few months at least.



Two Taliban attacks in Farah province on Friday left more than 30 Afghan police officers dead. Overnight, a group of Taliban fighters killed at least 23 police officers in the province’s Balabuluk province, and later another group of Taliban killed 11 police officers in Farah city. Though sparsely populated, Farah is a key province for Afghanistan’s opium trade, because it sits on smuggling routes out of the country and into Iran.


A bomb blast targeting a police patrol in the city of Kohat on Friday killed at least one police officer and wounded 13 other people. Kohat is close to the Afghan border which would suggest Pakistani Taliban involvement, but there’s been no indication as to responsibility.


The Philippine Supreme Court voted on Friday to oust its own chief justice, Maria Lourdes Sereno, citing such helpfully unambiguous violations as “casting aspersions and ill-motive to the members of the Supreme Court.” Sereno’s real problem is that she’s gotten on Rodrigo Duterte’s enemies list, so that’s a great sign for Philippine democracy.



At least five people were killed on Wednesday when gunmen attacked a vehicle and then a Tuareg camp near the Mali-Niger border. The perpetrators were probably connected with ISIS-Greater Sahara, but there’s been no claim of responsibility.


Muhammadu Buhari’s latest medical trip to London was a short one. He returned to Nigeria on Friday, a day earlier than expected. That’s unlikely to stem the demand that he finally tell the Nigerian public what’s ailing him, however.



The League and the Five Star Movement have reportedly made considerable progress negotiating a coalition agreement, but they’re having a very predictable problem: deciding who gets to be prime minister. Both party leaders–the League’s Matteo Salvini and Five Star’s Luigi Di Maio–are looking for someone from outside their parties to serve as PM in an effort to enhance their government’s mainstream respectability, but so far they apparently haven’t found someone on whom both parties can agree. In the meantime, European markets seem concerned about the mix of Five Star’s promised universal basic income program and the League’s promised flat tax reform. The combination is likely to bust Italy’s deficit wide open, which could run afoul of European Union rules about that sort of thing.

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