World update: January 28 2019



The Syrian Democratic Forces’ commander in Baghouz, Heval Roni, says that ISIS is down to its last four square kilometers of territory in Syria, a stretch of territory from the Baghouz area to the Iraqi border. The SDF believes there are “some high-ranking” ISIS bigwigs in that enclave, but doesn’t know if Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is among them (assuming he’s still among the living at all).


United Nations Yemen envoy Martin Griffiths told reporters on Monday that the timeline for the Houthis to evacuate Hudaydah has been “extended” due to the “complex situation on the ground.” Which I suppose sounds better than “my ceasefire is falling apart.” The Saudis are urging him to say the latter so that they can get back to triple tapping orphanages, but Griffiths is still trying to salvage last month’s peace talks. He did acknowledge that even the Houthi-government prisoner exchange, which seemed like the easiest agreement to come out of those talks and the likeliest to actually be implemented, is starting to look like a long shot.


Rafah, the main border crossing between Gaza and Egypt, is expected to reopen in both directions on Tuesday. It’s been closed to traffic into Egypt for a little over three weeks due to the Palestinian Authority’s decision to pull its personnel out. Hamas and the Egyptians managed to negotiate an agreement to reopen it.

Benjamin Netanyahu is ordering the expulsion of an international peacekeeping unit based in the West Bank city of Hebron. I’m, uh, sure this is nothing to worry about. The Temporary International Presence in Hebron (TIPH) was put in place in 1998 after an Israeli settler murdered 29 Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs, but Netanyahu has decided that it’s been terribly unfair to the settlers–who shouldn’t even be there, but you know how it is.


Bahrain’s Court of Cassation has upheld the life sentences given to Wefaq party leaders Sheikh Ali Salman, Sheikh Hassan Sultan, and Ali Alaswad in November. They were all convicted of spying for Qatar, though their actual crime is simply leading the country’s political opposition.


The emir of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, who had his own daughter abducted last year when she tried to flee the country, honored the 2018 winners of his Gender Balance Index awards on Monday. I think you’ll agree they definitely reflect gender balance:

Kudos to these men, and apparently only men, who are blazing a path for women’s equality in Dubai!


Iranian Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri was in Damascus on Monday to announce several economic agreements between the Iranian and Syrian governments. The agreements covered a number of sectors–power, transportation, education, housing, and more–and represent Iran’s attempt to cash out on all the resources it’s pumped into keeping Bashar al-Assad alive and in power.



US Afghanistan envoy Zalmay Khalilzad told the New York Times on Monday that the US and Taliban have reached agreement on a draft peace framework. The main points are, as has already been reported, that the US will withdraw from Afghanistan in return for Taliban assurances that the country will never again play willing host to a terrorist organization. The sticking points will be enforcing that latter pledge and getting the Taliban to agree to talks with the Afghan government. The Taliban is still refusing to hold those talks because it rejects the government’s legitimacy, but the US is unlikely to pull out without some kind of deal in place between the Taliban and Kabul. One possible way around this issue would be to scrap the current Afghan government and form an interim government that includes the Taliban, thereby ensuring that the Taliban would be willing to engage with it. But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has flat-out rejected that idea.

“Unlikely” of course isn’t “definitely not,” and as with everything else these days what happens in Afghanistan will be subject to Donald Trump’s whims. That’s why there seems to be an increasing level of nervousness in Kabul over the possibility that the US might just say “peace out” and vamoose. How you feel about that possibility probably depends on whether or not you believe that, somehow, after 18 years, the US can figure out a way to win this war. The thing is, that’s not happening. So yes, the Taliban is a regressive horror show, but the choice here isn’t between the Taliban and a liberal secular democracy. It’s between the risk of a Taliban takeover and the certainty of Forever War.


West Papuan militants killed one Indonesian soldier on Monday when they opened fire on a military aircraft over the province’s Nduga district.


The Justice Department on Monday announced 23 indictments against Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei, related to allegations of the theft of intellectual property and sanctions violations as well as obstruction of justice. The US will now formally seek the extradition of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, who’s been in Canadian custody since last month.


Analyst William Sposato wonders if Japan, unnerved by Donald Trump, might seek to develop its own nuclear weapons program:

Facing the reality of a nuclear North Korea, worsening relations with ostensible ally South Korea, and an unpredictable partner in Washington, Japan’s government is ramping up its military defenses, shedding many of its postwar taboos. Could the ban on nuclear weapons also be sent to the scrap heap at the same time as the country gets a real army? The idea seems far-fetched, but Japan is increasingly alone in a fast-changing Asian security environment.

Since the advent of the atomic age, Japan has sat comfortably under the U.S. nuclear umbrella, a key element in a defense alliance that is often touted by both U.S. and Japanese officials as the strongest in the world. The treaty, first signed in 1951, provides U.S. security guarantees for a country that had renounced the use of force in its post-World War II constitution, which was largely drafted by Japan’s U.S. occupiers. In exchange, Japan is home to extensive U.S. military bases that have helped to project power into the center of East Asia. The alliance seemed unbreakable. But that was before Donald Trump became U.S. president—a leader ostensibly willing to put everything on the table, with a view of Japan seemingly stuck in the 1980s.



Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, in Vienna for meetings with Austrian leader, told reporters that his government is trying to improve conditions for the 20,000 or so people languishing in migrant camps across the country. Sarraj noted “the security and economic constraints” under which his government is operating–basically that it doesn’t really control any part of the country except Tripoli and doesn’t even really control that. Sarraj was responding to pointed criticism about the camps from Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen.


Jihadist fighters have killed 14 people in Burkina Faso’s northern Nassoumbou region over the past two days. On Sunday a group of gunmen killed ten civilians near the village of Sikire, and on Monday gunmen–it’s unclear if the two attacks are related in any way–hit a counterterrorism unit of the Burkinabe military, killing four soldiers and injuring five more.


Emmerson Mnangagwa is appalled–appalled–to learn that there’s gambling in this casino:

That report involved video of Zimbabwean soldiers beating a detained protester as part of their ongoing crackdown, the one Mnangagwa either can’t or won’t stop (I suspect the former, which is probably worse).



German judge Christoph Flügge has abruptly quit the UN’s International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals court at The Hague, citing US and Turkish efforts to interfere with international jurisprudence and the UN’s apparent unwillingness to do anything about it. Flügge criticized threats from US National Security Advisor John Bolton against International Criminal Court judges who investigate US war crimes in Afghanistan. He also said that the Turkish government “connived” with the UN to remove a Turkish judge from the IRMCT–that judge was subsequently arrested by Turkish authorities over ties to the Fethullah Gülen movement.


The increasing number of seriously injured Yellow Vests protesters is raising concerns about French police brutality:

Since violent clashes began in November, 11 people have died, and 1,900 protesters and 1,200 law enforcement officers have been injured, according to the Interior Ministry. Independent counts by the newspaper Libération and the journalist David Dufresne say that 109 protesters have been seriously injured, including 18 who have become blind in one eye and four who have lost a hand.

“We weren’t afraid of the police, but this has changed,” said Fiorina Lignier, a 20-year-old philosophy student who lost an eye at a Yellow Vest protest in Paris on Dec. 8. “They are more offensive, more repressive, blind in their actions.”


Theresa May wants parliament to commit to approving her Brexit plan if the European Union agrees to renegotiate the Irish backstop part of the arrangement, so that she can go to Brussels with a stronger hand and demand concessions. Parliament will vote on Tuesday on possible paths forward. And while a vote could strengthen May’s position it still won’t be a strong position. The EU could easily still tell her to get bent.



The Trump administration on Monday levied its harshest sanctions yet on Nicolás Maduro’s government in Venezuela, targeting the country’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA. Some $7 billion in PDVSA assets will be frozen and the company will lose at least some part of the $11 billion in exports it makes to the US every year. There’s no minimizing what a death blow this could be to the Venezuelan economy, which runs on oil and ships 41 percent of its annual exports to the US. And therefore there is also no minimizing the pain these sanctions are likely to cause the Venezuelan people. PDVSA’s US subsidiary, Citgo, may still be allowed to operate so long as it doesn’t repatriate its revenues to Venezuela.

Also the US has apparently changed Venezuela’s name, and we might be sending 5000 soldiers to Colombia to, uh, just see what’s happening I guess:

(for the record, nobody actually calls it that except maybe Bolton)

Sounds exciting!

Maduro on Monday opened a new private currency exchange that might do a bit–but only a bit–to alleviate the impact his currency controls have had on inflation. The issue for Venezuela now is that it just doesn’t have enough foreign currency stockpiled, though, and a second exchange isn’t going to solve that.

The Lima Group, the 14 nation Latin American (plus Canada) bloc that’s been leading the way in pressuring Maduro alongside the US, will meet in Canada on February 4. They’ll talk about ways they can support opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who declared himself president last week. Guaidó’s claim hinges on the National Assembly’s constitutional power to declare the president unfit for office and thus declare the office itself vacant under article 233 of the Venezuelan constitution. That power is a bit more ambiguous than Guaidó and his supporters would like you to believe:

The President of the Republic shall become permanently unavailable to serve by reason of any of the following events: death; resignation; removal from office by decision of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice; permanent physical or mental disability certified by a medical board designated by the Supreme Tribunal of Justice with the approval of the National Assembly; abandonment of his position, duly declared by the National Assembly; and recall by popular vote.

What constitutes “abandonment of his position”? Beats me. But that’s the only scenario under which the National Assembly on its own has the right to remove the president. Maduro is still in office, so the plain meaning of “abandonment” wouldn’t seem to apply here. But I’m not a lawyer, let alone a Venezuelan constitutional lawyer, so don’t go by me.

Hopefully the Lima Group will also talk about caring for Venezuelan refugees, who are being left unprotected by the same South American governments that profess to care so deeply for the Venezuelan people that they just have to show Maduro the door.


The death toll in the January 18 gasoline pipeline explosion in Hidalgo state has risen again, to 115, with 32 still hospitalized.


Finally, you’ll be pleased to know that the US has begun producing a new line of low-yield nuclear warheads for the Trident Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile. These weapons, hard as this may be to grasp, are intended to make the use of nukes a more realistic option in a conflict. They’re dreamed up by people deluded enough to think that it’s theoretically possible to use nuclear weapons without causing a full-scale nuclear war. Or, in other words, maniacs. Cheers!

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