World update: July 25 2018

We’ve got some activity at hq today (the electricity remains on, thankfully) so I’m going to need to make this as short and early as possible.



ISIS militants killed at least 96 people on Wednesday in a combination of suicide bombings and gun battles in the southwestern Syrian city of Suwayda. That figure comes from the Suwayda government–the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at over 150, including civilians, rebel fighters, and local government officials. ISIS has also released photos it claims are of the Syrian pilot who was killed on Tuesday when his plane was shot down by Israeli anti-aircraft missiles over the Golan. Which likely means the Israelis shot down a plane that was attacking ISIS. Way to go, guys.

UPDATE: Local officials are now putting the death toll at 215, and it seems likely that number will climb higher still.

Wary that they will be (or maybe already have been) thrown under the proverbial bus by the United States, Syrian Kurds are putting out feelers to Damascus for engagement. The YPG has begun deemphasizing its Kurdish nationalist ambitions and is talking about collaborating with the Syrian government on projects like rebuilding the Tabqa Dam and even attacking rebels (and occupying Turkish forces?) in Idlib province. The Kurds say they want autonomy, not independence, and would like to strike a deal with Bashar al-Assad on those terms that includes a joint operation to push Turkey out of Afrin in addition to Idlib. Whether Assad would be amenable to that is another question.


A Houthi missile attack damaged a Saudi vessel in the Red Sea on Wednesday. The Houthis say they fired on a Saudi warship but the Saudis say that it was an oil tanker.


Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri is optimistic that he’ll be able to form a new government “in the coming days.” Lebanon has been under a caretaker government since its parliamentary election in May as Hariri has been trying to cobble together a broad-based national unity-esque coalition.


Three Hamas members were killed on Wednesday when Israeli aircraft and artillery struck Hamas targets across Gaza. The Israeli strikes were prompted by sniper fire directed at Israeli soldiers at the Gaza fence line. The soldiers were apparently trying to turn back a group of Gazan children who had approached the fence. This will undoubtedly set back the ongoing international efforts to ratchet down tensions in Gaza.

Thanks to the Trump administration’s massive aid cut, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency on Wednesday announced that it has laid off 154 employees in the West Bank and 113 employees in Gaza, while bumping around 580 staff in Gaza to part-time status. One of the agency’s laid off workers in Gaza reportedly attempted to light himself on fire after receiving the news. The UNRWA also says it will not have enough money to open schools in the fall, further destabilizing the situation.


The Qatari and US governments are in talks to expand the Al Udeid Airbase in Qatar and make the US presence there permanent. Which would presumably be a small change for the US, which has been using Al Udeid since 2001 and helped build the facility in the 1990s, but it would be a big symbolic development for Qatar, which wants to advertise tight ties with the US in the face of ongoing intra-Gulf tensions.



Early returns suggest that Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf will come out on top in Wednesday’s election but that it will fall well short of a parliamentary majority. Projections have PTI at between 94 and 102 seats, but 137 seats are needed for a majority. Khan may have trouble finding coalition partners, which would open up the door for another party to slide into government. However, the current ruling Pakistani Muslim League-Nawaz party is only projected to win 40-58 seats, so it would have a very uphill battle to form a coalition as well. These projections could change as results come in from the Punjab, which is usually the key to Pakistani elections and where the PML-N has a strong traditional base.

We can get more into this tomorrow when the results will be better known, but the vote was marred by a terrorist attack (claimed by ISIS) at a polling station in Quetta that killed at least 31 people. There have also been reports of the Pakistani military, which appears to favor Khan and his PTI, throwing PML-N elections monitors out of polling places. Everything is aligning for a messy, contentious post-election period.


Indian officials say their forces killed two Kashmiri separatists on Wednesday in a battle in the town of Anantnag.


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Uganda on his way to the BRICS summit in South Africa on Wednesday, where he told the Ugandan parliament that “Africa will be at the top of our priorities” in the future. Modi promised that India’s “development partnership will be guided by your priorities. It will be on terms that will be comfortable for you, that will liberate your potential and not constrain your future.” Obviously he’s looking to make a move into financing African development projects to challenge China, and the reference to “comfortable” terms is meant to contrast India’s approach to China’s onerous Belt and Road loan terms. The China-India rivalry is going global.


Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is going to be “more firm” in dealing with disputes with China over the South China Sea, according to Malaysian Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah. Mahathir has called for the removal of warships from the sea and may take a stronger position against Chinese militarization than former PM Najib Razak did. But it’s unlikely he’ll take any positions strong enough to really antagonize Beijing.


At the BRICS summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned that “unilateralism and protectionism are mounting” and pose a serious threat to global trade. Obviously he’s talking about Donald Trump. The summit is focusing mostly on his trade behavior and could end with the BRICS nations more tightly aligned on trade than ever.

James Dorsey writes that China’s crackdown on Uyghurs and other peoples of Central Asian ethnicity in Xinjiang, as well as those hefty Belt and Road penalties, are feeding a move towards populism and alignment with the West in Central and South Asia:

The incarceration of up to 2,5000 Kazakhs in re-education camps in Xinjiang designed to install Chinese values and loyalty to President Xi Jinping, erase nationalist and militant sentiment, and introduce ‘Chinese characteristics’ into perceptions of Islam among the region’s Uyghur population, a Muslim Turkic ethnic group, has spurred a Kazakh search to cautiously chart an independent course.

An estimated 1.5 million ethnic Kazakhs live in Xinjiang, 200,000 of which obtained Kazakh citizenship after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. In contrast to Uyghurs, they were able to move freely across the Kazakh-Chinese border until 2016 when China stepped up its crackdown in Xinjiang.

Chinese policy also figures in crucial Pakistani elections with populist contender and former international cricket player Imran Khan demanding greater transparency in China’s US$ 50 billion plus investment in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a Belt and Road crown jewel and the initiative’s single largest investment. Mr. Khan is also demanding a more equitable distribution of Chinese investment among Pakistan’s provinces.


North Korea is dismantling parts of its Sohae Satellite Launching Station. But it appears to be hedging its bets. According to US intelligence community, the work it’s done so far at Sohae could be reversed in a matter of weeks if Pyongyang had a change of heart.



A group of armed Arab demonstrators took over Timbuktu on Wednesday to protest the Malian government’s discrimination against Arabs and its overall collapsing state of internal security. Add them to a growing number of Malians who are unhappy with President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s failure to provide security, and add their outburst to the list of security crises Keita has failed to control. With an election looming on Sunday, that’s not a good sign for his reelection chances.


The Nigerian government’s war against Boko Haram is geographically confined to the northeastern part of the country, but as Alex Thurston explains, its effects have reverberated nationwide:

Turning back to Nigerian politics, both the Shekau and al-Barnawi factions are mostly limited to the northeast. Yet the issue of Boko Haram is national. The crisis has triggered massive security expenditures, some of which have fueled corruption – one of the country’s core problems. The government’s multiple pronouncements of Boko Haram’s defeat have also cost it some credibility, especially as various Nigerian elites argue that on multiple issues, Buhari’s administration has perpetuated the very practices (corruption, indifference to ordinary Nigerians’ problems, cynical politics) that Buhari decried in his predecessor. The 2019 election will be a hard-fought affair, with elite coalitions shifting and re-shifting in dizzying patterns until the last vote is counted, and with many voters despairing over the choices presented to them; Boko Haram will only be one piece of this equation, but it will be a significant part. The group’s presence will make voting difficult in parts of the northeastern countryside, and the campaign will feature numerous accusations and counter-accusations about the administration’s performance and intentions.


The South Sudanese government and the main SPLM-IO rebel group reached a power-sharing agreement in Khartoum on Wednesday that could, could, finally bring that country’s civil war to an end. Under the terms of the deal SPLM-IO leader Riek Machar will once again be named as a vice president under South Sudanese leader Salva Kiir, and the party will be given control of nine ministries in a new 35 member cabinet (20 of the seats will go to Kiir’s party and the others to smaller factions). It should be stressed that South Sudan has gone down this road before only to come up bust in the end.


Opposition leader Nelson Chamisa said on Wednesday that his coalition will not boycott Monday’s election despite calls for it to do so over concerns that the country’s election commission is biased toward the ruling ZANU-PF and President Emmerson Mnangagwa. Chamisa has complained to the commission about Hashtag Fake News possibly coming from Russia but hasn’t done a great job of making its case. He’s also complained that Mnangagwa is preparing to rig the vote by messing with ballots and trying to bribe voters through distributing food aid. Nevertheless he seems confident that he and his MDC party will come out on top.


The once loosely organized Islamist youth gangs behind the spate of beheadings and other attacks in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region over the past several months appear to be coalescing around a new organization:

An emerging pattern suggests the potential beginnings of an Islamist threat in Cabo Delgado – an impoverished province on the border with Tanzania where companies are developing one of the biggest gas finds in a decade.

The group goes by the name Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama, or “followers of the prophetic tradition”. In common with Boko Haram in Nigeria, it touts a radical form of Islam as an antidote to what it regards as corrupt, elitist rule that has broadened gaping inequality.

Since October more than 100 people have been killed, often by decapitation, in 40 separate attacks, in villages up to 200 km (124 miles) apart, according to local news site Zitamar.

The group is believed to have ties with Islamist groups along the East African coast and in the Great Lakes region.


The Trump administration may be about to take its tariff/trade war program to the next level:

The big test will come soon. By next month, the U.S. Commerce Department is slated to wrap up its investigation into the national security risk posed by imported cars. If Volkswagens and Toyotas are found to be a threat to America, foreign cars and car parts could be hit with tariffs of 20 to 25 percent. The administration used national security to justify imposing tariffs on imports of steel and aluminum and is considering doing the same with uranium. But those sectors are dwarfed by the sheer size of the global auto industry, making the decision on auto tariffs the most consequential trade move yet.

The specter of auto tariffs will be at the top of the agenda when Trump meets with Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, and EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom.


After what seems like weeks of cryptic comments from Donald Trump about how he might at some point recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the Trump administration on Wednesday declared that it will never recognize that annexation and will continue to demand the restoration of Ukraine’s territory. I guess we can start taking bets on how long it takes Trump to contradict this statement.


New polling suggests that a majority of Italians are ready to leave the European Union rather than put up with any more Brussels-mandated austerity:

In 2013, the Siena survey indicated that a majority of Italians agreed on the need to reduce the country’s public debt, with only a minority ready to challenge the E.U. Survey results four years later, in 2017, reveal the majority no longer saw the debt as a national priority — and a strong plurality preferred to leave the E.U. rather than make new sacrifices to reduce the public debt to comply with the stringent European budgetary rules.



Canadian authorities continue to insist that they’ve found no links between Faisal Hussain, the man who shot 15 people (killing two) outside a Toronto restaurant on Sunday night, and international terrorism, despite the fact that ISIS, through its AMAQ news agency, claimed responsibility for the attack on Wednesday and described Hussain in terms it’s used for other “self-radicalized” attackers who were inspired by ISIS’s message. Hussain’s family has talked about his struggles with mental illness as an explanation, which of course does not exclude the possibility that he was also radicalized by ISIS propaganda.


Finally, Council on Foreign Relations fellow Stewart Patrick argues that US allies are scrambling to establish workarounds to the Trump administration that may lead to a long-term reshaping of international affairs:

Stunned U.S. allies are now adapting to their new normal by taking steps previously unimaginable. They are hedging their bets in dawning recognition that the America of old may never return, regardless of who succeeds Trump. They are pursuing strategic autonomy, seeking to decouple from an unpredictable United States. And they are considering how to restore some semblance of international cooperation in a world left rudderless in the wake of the U.S. abdication of global leadership.

Collectively, Trump’s actions have sent U.S. allies reeling, shaking their long-standing faith in the West as a community of shared values, interests, and institutions. In response, they are working with China to safeguard globalization, expanding their own strategic autonomy vis-à-vis Washington, and grasping to defend what remains of the open world from the depredations of its erstwhile creator.

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