World update: November 29 2018

It’s been a long day here and fortunately nothing particularly horrifying appears to have happened in the world, so I’m going to quickly run through a few stories and call it a night.



In a story that is very much still developing, Russian media is reporting that Syrian air defenses shot down an Israeli aircraft and four Israeli missiles that were bound for Kiswah, south of Damascus. There is a major Hezbollah logistical base near Kiswah that presumably was the Israeli target. The Israelis are flatly denying that they lost one of their aircraft in the attack. At this point it’s unclear how many Israeli missiles hit the target and how much damage they caused.

In another story that is very much not developing, Thursday’s big Syrian peace summit in Astana was a bust. It produced a joint statement from Iran, Russia, and Turkey that expressed concern about ceasefire violations in Idlib and pledged to “intensify” efforts to form a commission to write a new Syrian constitution. Or, in layman’s terms, nothing. I know, I really thought they were going to get something done this time around.


Speaking of busts, Britain’s Yemeni ceasefire resolution has petered out at the United Nations Security Council. The US, China, and two other UNSC members have, after heavy lobbying by the Saudis and the UAE, decided that now is not the right time to stop killing Yemenis, when there are so many of them still alive. All four states say they’ll be happy to consider a ceasefire once peace talks have been scheduled between the Houthis and the Yemeni government, though presumably they’ll still be taking orders from Riyadh at that point. Those talks, in case you were wondering, were supposed to happen next week, but now UN Secretary-General António Guterres says he’ll be happy if they get started by the end of the year. So it seems like everything is going well there. The key issue is probably the Houthis’ insistence that their negotiators be guaranteed safe passage to and from the talks, which seems like a pretty reasonable condition that will nevertheless be spun as some demonic Iranian treachery in DC if it winds up stalling the talks.


Benjamin Netanyahu has been on a diplomatic world tour, lately, improving Israeli relations with Chad, the Czech Republic, Sudan, and more. His secret, apparently, is his lack of any kind of moral or ethical standards:

Netanyahu’s conception is that exporting arms and cyber weaponry to dictators, plus waging public relations campaigns on their behalf, equals highly publicized visits plus public relations for Netanyahu. According to Netanyahu’s method, in exchange for Israeli military technology, he can get excellent media exposure. In his equation, there is no room for Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its settlements there, nor for the diplomatic freeze with the Palestinians. The victorious trumpeting heralding Netanyahu’s recent visit to Oman, his July 2017 visit to Budapest, and his enthusiastic reception of the leaders of Chad and the Czech Republic in Jerusalem illustrate Netanyahu’s unique abilities. He is the only one who can accomplish all the following feats at the same time: Cultivate the settlement enterprise and perpetuate half a century of Israeli occupation, destroy the diplomatic process, cultivate Israel’s ties with Europe and breach the boycott of the Arab-Muslim world.


The Trump administration on Thursday put on another of its dog and pony shows meant to prove that Iran has been directly arming the Houthis in Yemen. What it presented was a collection of weapons, many of which it couldn’t actually say the Houthis possess or had ever used, that appeared to have some more or less tenuous links to Iran, like the logo of an Iranian company or some Persian writing. Which is circumstantial, but that’s about it. The administration also produced rockets it claimed were provided by Iran to the Taliban in Afghanistan, though again it couldn’t actually prove that claim. The Taliban trades extensively on the global arms black market, so its possession of a few possibly-Iranian missiles is not evidence that Iran provided it with those missiles.



Grigol Vashadze, the opposition candidate who lost Wednesday’s presidential runoff to ruling Georgian Dream party candidate Salome Zurabishvili, says he will challenge the results of the runoff vote. There are some peculiar details about the runoff. Georgian Dream party leader Bidzina Ivanishvili announced through a charity a bit over a week before the vote that he would be paying off bad loans for around 600,000 Georgian voters, for example. Many people also reported getting a recorded phone call from Ivanishvili on Wednesday that just skirted Georgian campaign law by hinting that they should vote for Zurabishvili without actually saying so explicitly. Nevertheless, observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe have said that the vote on Wednesday was fair. Their criticism has to do with the campaign, during which Ivanishvili and Georgian Dream used every tool in their kit to tilt the playing field in Zurabishvili’s favor.


The Sri Lankan parliament on Thursday barred would-be Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa from using state funds. Rajapaksa has lost two no-confidence votes since being appointed–possibly unlawfully–to the job by President Maithripala Sirisena last month. He’s refused to accept either result since both were conducted by voice vote. But Thursday’s measure was a roll call vote and Rajapaksa lost. It’s hard to imagine that any of the legislators who voted to prevent Rajapaksa from dipping into the state treasury actually want to see him become PM, so clearly there is a majority opposed to his appointment.



Donald Trump did in fact cancel his scheduled G20 meeting with Vladimir Putin, via–how else–Twitter:

The Russians did a little trolling in response to Trump’s announcement:

Trump’s tweet appeared to catch the Kremlin off guard while Putin was en route to the summit. Putin’s top spokesman said Thursday that Russia had not yet received official notification of the cancellation from the White House.

“We are flying to Argentina, so far we’ve seen only tweets and mass media. We don’t have official information,” Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to Interfax, the Russian news service.

“If this is so, the president will have a couple extra hours in the program for useful meetings on the sidelines of the summit,” Peskov added.


European Union Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier stressed in a speech to the EU parliament on Thursday that there is no alternative to the Brexit deal he reached with Theresa May earlier this month. Barnier’s real audience was undoubtedly the UK parliament, who still look likely to vote their agreement down next month. May has been trying to scare legislators into line by arguing that if they vote down her deal it will mean a no-deal Brexit, and Barnier is trying to help her sell that.



Finally, because God help us the 2020 presidential campaign has already begun, potential Democratic candidates are going to start rolling out their foreign policy speeches over the next few months. Thursday it was Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s turn:

Speaking at American University in Washington, D.C., on Thursday, Warren called for the U.S. to take a “sharp knife” to defense spending, invest in diplomacy, and aggressively fight climate change. Pointing out the connections between wealth and political power in authoritarian states like Russia and China, Warren argued that the U.S. should take aim at corruption, internationally and at home.

“From Hungary to Turkey, from the Philippines to Brazil, wealthy elites work together to grow the state’s power while the state works to grow the wealth of those who remain loyal to the leader,” said Warren. “That’s corruption, pure and simple.”

For Warren, who doesn’t have much of a foreign policy background and whose Senate record suggests she’s a fairly conventional Democrat who doesn’t really have much of a leftist critique of US foreign policy, this is a smart place to start. It dovetails nicely with her domestic economic message–or to me more accurate it is her domestic economic message, just broadened. And she’s not wrong. The insidious relationship between money and political power has fueled the rise of the far right, both directly and indirectly, as the economic problems caused by plutocrat-mandated austerity drive voters toward far-right demagogues. Still, it’s clear she’s got some work to do to develop a  complete foreign policy agenda, especially if she’s hoping to draw support from the left wing of the party in 2020.

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