World update: February 7 2019



The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the US military plans to withdraw its forces from Syria by the end of April. It’s unclear whether this is a firm schedule or if there’s flexibility in case there’s some unforeseen complication in the anti-ISIS operation or the Trump administration hasn’t negotiated an arrangement to prevent a Turkish offensive against the YPG militia by then.

Iraqi Popular Mobilization militias say they launched 50 missiles against ISIS positions around the Syrian village of Baghouz on Thursday. Baghouz is the last pocket of ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and the Syrian Democratic Forces expect to secure it within the next few weeks.

According to the Guardian, intelligence officials believe that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi recently survived an assassination attempt by a group of foreign ISIS fighters. ISIS has reportedly put a bounty on a foreign fighter named Abu Muath al-Jazairi, who I guess we can assume was the ringleader or one of the ringleaders of the plot. Baghdadi is believed to still by somewhere in Syria though his exact whereabouts remain a mystery.


The Yemeni government and Houthi rebels have reportedly agreed on a preliminary plan to withdraw their forces from Hudaydah. If it holds, this would be a major step toward salvaging and implementing the ceasefire agreement the two sides reached back in December. No details of the arrangement have been released. Another part of the deal the two sides negotiated in December is a major prisoner swap, but efforts to finalize a list of people to be freed has hit some snags along the way. The two sides have been meeting in Jordan this week to try to move the process along, but the Houthis on Thursday said the negotiations could go on for “months” because the government and its Saudi/Emirati allies are refusing to acknowledge thousands of the Houthi prisoners they’re holding.


Agnes Callamard, the leader of the United Nations investigation into the Jamal Khashoggi murder, has concluded that Khashoggi “was the victim of a brutal and premeditated killing, planned and perpetrated by officials of the State of Saudi Arabia.” Which, fine, we already knew that. But Callamard specifically accused the Saudis of having “seriously curtailed and undermined” the initial Turkish investigation into the murder, which lends credence to Turkey’s complaints along those same lines. Callamard will present her findings to the UN Human Rights Council later this year, but it’s unlikely that will lead to any penalties for Riyadh.

The New York Times, meanwhile, is reporting that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman was uttering threats against Khashoggi’s life a year before the journalist was killed:

The conversation between Prince Mohammed and the aide, Turki Aldakhil, took place in September 2017, as officials in the kingdom were growing increasingly alarmed about Mr. Khashoggi’s criticisms of the Saudi government. That same month, Mr. Khashoggi began writing opinion columns for The Washington Post, and top Saudi officials discussed ways to lure him back to Saudi Arabia.

In the conversation, Prince Mohammed said that if Mr. Khashoggi could not be enticed back to Saudi Arabia, then he should be returned by force. If neither of those methods worked, the crown prince said, then he would go after Mr. Khashoggi “with a bullet,” according to the officials familiar with one of the intelligence reports, which was produced in early December.


The Iranian military has unveiled a new medium-range ballistic missile along with the underground facility where it was apparently produced. This is going to make it harder for European governments to avoid sanctioning Iran over its missile program, but is an easy way for Iranian hardliners to puff out their chests amid the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.



A recent crackdown by the Pakistani government against Pashtun rights’ activists is aggravating the already aggravated relationship between Pakistan and Afghanistan. To wit:

These new tensions come of course at a time when Pakistan has been helping to facilitate peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and the United States, talks that have excluded and frustrated Kabul.


Indian security forces reportedly killed at least 10 Naxalite Maoist rebels on Thursday in an attack on their training camp in Chhattisgarh state.


Another 136 people have been displaced into Bangladesh by fighting in Rakhine state in recent days, adding to the estimated 5000 displaced from Rakhine and Chin states since December. These refugees are not Rohingya–they’re from the Rakhine and Chin minorities and have been uprooted by fighting between the Myanmar military and the Buddhist Arakan Army.


Military junta leader Prayut Chan-o-cha announced Friday morning that he will be a candidate for prime minister in Thailand’s March 24 election. One of his opponents will reportedly be Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Varnavadi, eldest sister of Thai King Maha Vajiralongkorn. Her candidacy is “unprecedented” in a country where the royal family tends to steer clear of electoral politics.



According to Reuters, citing an anonymous engineer, Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army does not control El Sharara oil field as it announced on Wednesday. The LNA apparently only holds a substation of the facility, but the main field remains in the hands of local militias, guards, and other assorted fighters who took it over in December to protest a lack of salary payments and other concessions from the Libyan government (such as it is).

There are concerns that the LNA’s operation in southern Libya will exacerbate tensions between the regions Arab and Tubu peoples:

Libya’s Tubu, part of a larger cross-border ethnic group, have long railed against discrimination in the predominantly Arab country.

Some of its members accuse the LNA, which counts Tubu fighters among its ranks, of directing rival Arab tribes to enter their communities.

Youssef Kalkouri, a Tubu lawmaker in the eastern Haftar-backed administration, told AFP his community categorically opposes Arab tribal forces entering their cities.

Haftar’s forces said Friday they had battled Chadian rebels in the town of Ghudduwah south of Sebha (650 kilometres south of Tripoli) before calling in air strikes against the insurgents on Sunday.

But Tubu say they too were targeted.


The Moroccan government has pulled its forces out of the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen and recalled its ambassador to Riyadh for consultations. It’s unclear what role Morocco was playing in the coalition to begin with, and it offered no specific reason for the change in policy, but Moroccan leaders have expressed some uneasiness both about events in Yemen and about the Khashoggi murder.



Moscow is now accusing the US of violating Cold War-era arms agreements by stationing missile defense units in Romania, and it’s calling on Washington to destroy them and its strike drones. Russia is trying to retaliate however it can for the US decision to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty after accusing Russia of violating it. It’s already promised to develop new intermediate missiles in the wake of the US withdrawal, which is probably a bluff because the Russian economy can’t really sustain any significant military buildup.


The Ukrainian parliament passed constitutional amendments on Thursday affirming the country’s commitment to joining NATO and the European Union. These are long-term aspirations, as neither organization is in any rush to admit Ukraine and potentially provoke a row with Russia.


Italy had a couple of World War II flashbacks on Thursday. For one thing, three actual unexploded World War II bombs turned up at Rome’s Ciampino airport, forcing the facility to shut down while technicians disarmed them.

For another thing, the French government up and recalled its ambassador from Rome, mentioning the war in its accompanying statement:

“France has been, for several months, the object of repeated accusations, unfounded attacks and outrageous declarations that everyone knows and can recognize,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “This is unprecedented since the end of the war.”

Those criticisms have come primarily from Italy’s populist leaders, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini and Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, who have used France’s pro-Europe president, Emmanuel Macron, as a foil for their Italy-first agenda.

The final straw for Macron was presumably Di Maio’s decision to meet with leaders of France’s “Yellow Vest” protest movement, which was a little weird though Di Maio is defending his right to do so and pretending he didn’t do it to provoke Macron. Salvini, the other half of Italy’s duumvirate, expressed an interest in meeting with Macron to ease tensions but stressed that other items would have to be on the agenda including migration issues. Their nominal boss but actual employee, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, tried to do a little cleanup while visiting Lebanon, telling reporters that any tensions between the two countries “can be cleared up immediately.”



It seems to have been a relatively uneventful day in Venezuela all things considered, but several trucks carrying humanitarian aid bound for Venezuela are stuck in Colombia, as expected, because Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has blockaded the Tienditas bridge connecting the two countries. Juan Guaidó may try setting up aid distribution centers along the border in Colombia but it’s hard to see how that could be very effective in actually getting aid to people who could use it.


New Salvadoran President-elect Nayib Bukele plans to “assess” El Salvador’s relationship with China once he’s in office. The Salvadorans just last year cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in favor of opening them with Beijing, but the anti-corruption Bukele was critical of that decision and of the benefits China lavished on El Salvador shortly afterward.


Thousands of protesters hit the streets of Port-au-Prince on Thursday to demand the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse. They want Moïse to go over his failure to investigate corruption allegations and over Haiti’s perpetually faltering and highly unequal economy.


Donald Trump is expected to tap David Malpass, his Undersecretary of the Treasury for International Affairs, as the next head of the World Bank. Malpass is a critic of globalization in general and the World Bank in particular, so he’s not going to be a popular pick among European leaders. But at least he’s a justifiable candidate who has extensive government experience (he served in both the Reagan and Bush I administrations), and it’s not like Trump is appointing Greg Gutfeld or the hosts of Fox and Friends. So it’s likely the Europeans will agree to his appointment.

Finally, this is a little off the usual path, but while it’s commonplace to talk about climate denialism in the Republican Party, Jacobin’s Branko Marcetic argues that many Washington Democrats are in denial too:

For all their supposed acknowledgement of the science, Democrats don’t really seem to believe climate change is an existential risk. As Warren made clear when rolling out her bill, she thinks climate change is “an economic disaster waiting to happen” that “will have an enormous effect on the value of company assets.”

Warren is far from unique. “It is here, and it is costing companies money,” one of her cosponsors said about climate change. “Climate change is a pressing economic issue,” said Harris, another cosponsor. It’ll “continue to have increasing and significant impacts on our country’s infrastructure and economy,” said Booker, yet another cosponsor.

Of course, left unchecked, environmental collapse is going to do a lot worse than just shrink GDP and hurt companies’ pocketbooks. The fact that prominent Democrats can’t articulate its threat in anything but such Reaganite terms says much about the party’s current state. (By contrast, Jeff Merkley, also a cosponsor of the bill and one of the most progressive members of the Senate, at least led with a comment about climate change’s effects on US communities.)

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