World update: May 30 2018

I’ll be out most of the late afternoon/evening so you’re getting a short midday update today.



Turkish media declared on Wednesday that US and Turkish officials have reached a deal to remove the YPG from Manbij. Getting the Kurds out of Manbij would avoid a potential Turkish assault on that town, which risks leading to a US-Turkey clash of some kind since there are US soldiers stationed there. Manbij is just one sore spot in the US-Turkey relationship, of course, which includes the broader US-YPG alliance, Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Ankara’s decision to buy weapons from Russia, Turkey’s insistence that the US extradite Fethullah Gülen, Washington’s insistence that Turkey release pastor Andrew Brunson, and on and on it goes. But it is the sore spot most likely to flare into actual violence, even if the chances of two NATO allies going at one another remain exceedingly small. So coming to some arrangement like this is a positive step.

Except that nobody seems to have included the Kurds in their “What Is To Be Done About The Kurds” discussion. A spokesperson for the YPG-led Manbij Military Council says they’re not making any plans to withdraw from the town. Splitting the difference, the US says it’s having “ongoing conversations” with Turkey about Manbij, but hasn’t agreed to any specific plans.


This is probably not great news:

Iraq’s electoral commission says it is cancelling the results from more than 1,000 polling stations used in this month’s parliamentary vote. It says it has evidence of fraud at voting centres both in Iraq and for citizens living abroad.


Workers, shop owners, union members, and many other Jordanians turned out on Wednesday to protest the government’s plan to drastically hike income taxes. Jordan’s economy is habitually weak, and the current government has shown a preference for tax hikes over spending cuts to try to balance its books. But Jordanians are already paying high sales taxes, so this income tax hike isn’t going over very well. They’re also angry over government failures to rein in corruption.


After a day of heavy violence along the Gaza fence line, Hamas declared a unilateral ceasefire on Wednesday, and the Israeli government said it would only resume fighting in response to strikes from Gaza. Amazingly there were no reports of deaths from Tuesday’s clash.



Azerbaijani authorities have cracked down on a demonstration that wasn’t political and didn’t include any sort of protest against the government. They’ve reportedly arrested at least four people accused of organizing an event in honor of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, which was founded 100 years ago and lasted about two years before it was forcibly incorporated into Russia (later the Soviet Union). The ADR is seen fondly by many Azerbaijanis today, especially in comparison with the autocratic Aliyevs, so apparently Baku viewed the event and its turnout as a political statement in its own right, even though it was not overtly political.


The US military revealed on Wednesday that it believes an artillery attack on an alleged Taliban meeting in Helmand province last week killed “more than 50 senior Taliban commanders.” The Taliban denies this claim and says that the attack killed five civilians but that’s it. Meanwhile, Taliban fighters reportedly overran the Dasht-e Qala district on Wednesday but Afghan forces were still fighting to recover it, and at least three people were killed in a Taliban bombing in Kandahar.

In Kabul, a group of ten ISIS fighters stormed the offices of Afghanistan’s interior ministry on Wednesday, kicking off a two hour battle that left at least one police officer killed along with several attackers.


Kashmiris who have had to evacuate their homes along the line of control over the past couple of years–a figure that stretches into the tens of thousands–are considering returning now that India and Pakistan have announced a ceasefire. But many are–rightly I think–waiting to see if the ceasefire actually sticks before they put themselves back in potential danger.


The New York Times summarizes the flurry of diplomatic activity around the Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summit, with meetings between US and North Korean officials happening in at least three different places simultaneously: New York, Singapore, and Panmunjom.

Meanwhile, the CIA is pretty confident that Kim will not agree to give up his nuclear deterrent in Singapore on June 12, which may come as a shock to the White House but is pretty much the same thing that most North Korea analysts have been saying for a couple of months now:

A new U.S. intelligence assessment has concluded that North Korea does not intend to give up its nuclear weapons any time soon, three U.S. officials told NBC News — a finding that conflicts with recent statements by President Donald Trump that Pyongyang intends to do so in the future.


Trump is continuing to pursue a nuclear summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un even though the CIA analysis, which is consistent with other expert opinion, casts doubt on the viability of Trump’s stated goal for the negotiations, the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons stockpile.


“Everybody knows they are not going to denuclearize,” said one intelligence official who read the report, which was circulated earlier this month, days before Trump canceled the originally scheduled summit.

On the plus side, they think Kim might agree to open a western burger joint in Pyongyang, apparently because he knows that Trump likes burgers. Baby steps, I suppose.



Biafran separatists have shut down most of southeastern Nigeria with a stay home strike to mark the anniversary of Biafra’s short-lived independent state, which declared its independence on May 30 1967. The Biafran independence movement has picked up steam again in recent years, as the Igbo people who predominate in that part of the country feel mistreated by the Nigerian government.


President Emmerson Mnangagwa announced on Wednesday that Nigeria will hold its next (and first post-Mugabe) general election on July 30. Mnangagwa has promised this vote will be legitimate and is inviting international observers to certify it, though obviously we’ll find out whether or not he really means it soon enough.



So, uh, remember how exiled Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko was murdered yesterday? So, about that:

Ukraine staged the murder of a Russian dissident journalist in Kiev on Tuesday in what it said was a sting operation to foil a Russian assassination plot.


Arkady Babchenko sent shock waves around the world when he arrived at a news conference on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after he was reported dead.


The head of Ukraine’s security services, Vasyl Hrytsak, said the elaborate sting was set up to catch hitmen paid by Russian forces.


Police said they had made one arrest.

This…elaborate deception included Babchenko’s wife discovering his “dead” body outside their apartment building. I hope there are some capable marriage counsellors in Kiev. But honestly, kudos to him if this stunt bears positive results and isn’t just a splashy event to embarrass Moscow. And kudos to Ukrainian authorities for watching The Dark Knight and applying its lessons to their work.


Thousands of people engaged in a strike and protest in Athens on Wednesday against–wait for it–austerity:

Nikos Papageorgiou, a member of the communist-linked PAME union’s executive committee, stood in front of a massive crowd of striking union members in Omonia Square.


“This is our ninth year of crisis, and the general picture for the working class in Greece is terrible, with high unemployment and low wages,” he told Al Jazeera.


Behind him, hundreds of PAME flags trembled above the protesting workers.


“Our demands aren’t just higher salaries but basic human rights for workers,” Papageorgiou added.


During Wednesday’s strike, demonstrators marched to Syntagma Square, where the Greek parliament is located. “Down with taxes, let the capitalists pay,” one banner read.


In lieu of either a temporary technocratic government or a snap election, it now seems that Italy’s Five Star Movement-League coalition may try again to form a cabinet that can get past President Sergio Mattarella’s veto. Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio is suggesting that Paolo Savona, the anti-euro would-be finance minister who failed to pass muster with Mattarella, could take another cabinet post and a new finance minister could be proposed.

It’s not clear whether the League, which picked Savona to head the finance ministry, would be OK with this change. At this point, with polling to suggest that his party would be the biggest beneficiary of a snap election, League leader Matteo Salvini might prefer a return to the polls. Indeed, it’s that polling–which shows Five Star mostly maintaining its share of the vote while the League’s share increases–that has Di Maio scrambling to find a compromise. Right now Five Star is the largest party in Italy and the more powerful member of the coalition, having outperformed the League in March by about 15 percent. A new vote could shift the balance of power by shrinking the gap between the two parties.



Brazil’s striking truck drivers were joined by oil workers on Wednesday, as the pressure grows for Michel Temer to leave office. The days-long trucking strike has halted the movement of basic necessities around the country, and if the oil workers strike spreads to other sectors then, well, things could get pretty ragged. The two movements aren’t directly related, however–the oil workers are demanding the ouster of Petrobras boss Pedro Parente and the unraveling of changes that Temer has made to the state oil company, and their strike is at this point limited to 72 hours.

Trucking protesters are talking openly about their desire to see Temer go, even if it takes a military coup to achieve it. Temer has already dropped out of October’s presidential election, so he’s on his way out one way or another.


Amnesty International has issued a new report criticizing Daniel Ortega’s government for the way it’s handled recent protests:

Nicaraguan authorities have adopted a strategy of repression, characterized by the excessive use of force, extrajudicial executions, control of the media, and the use of pro-government armed groups, to crush protests in which at least 81 people have been killed, Amnesty International said in a new report released today.


“The Nicaraguan authorities have turned on their own people in a vicious, sustained and frequently lethal assault on their rights to life, freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. The government of President Ortega has then shamelessly tried to cover up these atrocities, violating the victims’ rights to truth, justice and reparation,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas Director at Amnesty International.


Support for leftist frontrunner Andrés Manuel López Obrador has grown to 52 percent in a new poll commissioned by the Reforma newspaper. That’s up four points from the same survey in April. He leads his nearest contender, Ricardo Anaya, by 26 points after Anaya’s support dropped by four points from April. A May 20 debate, in which by most accounts López Obrador won easily and embarrassed Anaya in the process, seems to have contributed to this shift in the polling.

Despite López Obrador’s massive lead, BuzzFeed’s Mexico bureau chief Karla Zabludovsky writes that he could still come back to the pack before the July 1 election. The polling could be wrong, obviously, or the frontrunner’s political party could drop the ball. López Obrador also has a bit of a penchant for self-sabotage, though he seems to have gotten over it this time around:

During this campaign, people have been watching López Obrador not so much to see what he does but to try and catch him shooting himself in the foot.


“The greatest risk to AMLO is AMLO himself,” said Eric Olson, senior adviser of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.


But the combative, impulsive López Obrador has made way for a lighthearted, even comical one. After the Washington Post accused him of having ties to Russia, he posted a Twitter video calling himself Andrés Manuelovich and saying he was waiting for a gold-filled submarine for Moscow to arrive at the port of Veracruz, where he was waiting.


Ah, OK, this sounds great:

Finally, Stephen Walt talks about the difficulty that foreign policy realists have making sense of the Trump presidency–and the value he sees in trying to understand Trump (and the modern world) through a realist lens:

I’ll concede that the Trump presidency presents a particular challenge for realists. It’s not easy to reconcile Donald Trump’s incoherent and bumbling approach to foreign affairs with the idea that states pursue national interests in a more or less rational or strategic fashion. Trump has shown himself to be many things thus far — willful, vain, dishonest, impulsive, narcissistic, ignorant, etc. — but “rational” and “strategic” aren’t words that leap to mind when contemplating his foreign policy. Realism also emphasizes external factors, such as balances of power and geography, and downplays the role of individual leaders. But the Trump presidency is an eloquent and worrisome reminder of the damage that individual leaders can do and especially when they are convinced that they are “the only one that matters.”


Nonetheless, Trump’s singular incompetence isn’t sufficient reason to toss realism aside completely. For one thing, realism still helps us understand how Trump can get away with all this meshugas: The United States is still so powerful and secure that it can do a lot of dumb things and suffer only modest losses. More importantly, realism remains an extremely useful guide to a lot of things that have happened in the recent past or that are happening today. And as Trump is proving weekly, leaders who ignore these insights inevitably make lots of dumb mistakes.

You may not agree with all of it, but I think it’s worth reading this essay anyway.

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