World update part 1: March 1 2019



The Syrian Democratic Forces on Friday began what should be their final offensive to capture Baghouz and close off the last ISIS-controlled enclave in Syria. The SDF has spent the past couple of weeks evacuating thousands of civilians, escaped slaves, and even some fleeing ISIS fighters from the town–some 10,000 people are estimated to have left since February 20, including many, mostly wounded fighters and some ISIS family members, on Friday. It’s unclear how many ISIS fighters are left to defend the town and the SDF has said it expects heavy resistance, though it’s also said it plans to have things wrapped up by the end of next week.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons says it has “reasonable grounds” to believe that a chemical weapons incident involving chlorine took place in the city of Douma last April. The OPCW’s investigation was only about determining whether chemical weapons were used, so it has not accused any party of carrying out an attack.


A “senior member” of Yemen’s Southern Transitional Council, Ahmed Omar bin Fareed, told Reuters on Friday that southern Yemeni separatists need to have a seat at the table as the Houthis and Yemeni government try to negotiate an end to their civil war. He warned that failure to accommodate south Yemen’s interests could lead to a new conflict, which is one of the more discomforting aspects of the current war.


+972 Magazine has an explainer on the corruption charges for which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now facing indictment:

The charges revolve around three cases, known as Case 1000, Case 2000, and Case 4000. In Case 1000, Netanyahu is suspected of receiving gifts and benefits from billionaire patrons in exchange for political favors. Case 2000 involves Netanyahu’s alleged agreement with Arnon Mozes, the publisher of the Yedioth Ahronoth daily, to reduce the circulation of rival newspaper Israel Hayom — and perhaps even stop it from putting out a weekend magazine edition — in return for more favorable coverage in Yedioth.

In Case 4000, considered the most serious of the three in which Netanyahu will be charged with bribery, the prime minister is suspected of having promoted regulatory decisions that benefited Israeli businessman Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder of Israel’s largest telecommunications company, and who owns Israeli news site Walla, in exchange for positive news coverage.


Now that he’s got a US bounty on his head, the Saudis have revoked Hamza bin Laden’s citizenship. Better late than never, I guess.



Afghan forces apparently held off a significant Taliban attack against their Camp Shorab military outpost in Helmand province on Friday, but they lost at least 29 soldiers in the process against at least nine Taliban killed. It was, according to Afghan officials, the third Taliban attack on the base, which houses a substantial US contingent, in two days.


As promised, the Pakistani government returned Indian air force pilot Abhinandan Varthaman to India on Friday, who was shot down on Wednesday by Pakistani aircraft and subsequently captured by Pakistani forces. Apart from some initial rough handling, Varthaman seems to have been fairly well treated, and his return appears to signal that the latest India-Pakistan crisis is abating. In a sign that things are calming down, the Pakistanis announced that they will reopen their airspace on Monday, after having closed it earlier this week. Which is not to say we’re out of the woods. India turned over its file on the February 14 Pulwama bombing that started this whole thing, and it’s probably going to be expecting Pakistani authorities to take some action against Jaish-e-Muhammad and its leadership. If the Pakistanis don’t take any action, that could raise tensions again.


The Bangladeshi government says it will no longer accept Rohingya fleeing persecution in Myanmar. Around 740,000 Rohingya are believed to be in refugee camps in Bangladesh now, having escaped ethnic cleansing in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The Bangladeshis are growing increasingly angry at Myanmar’s government for its failure to ensure a safe environment to which the refugees can return.


Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy is trying to change Myanmar’s constitution, enacted by Myanmar’s then-military government back in 2008, to reduce the military’s role in civilian governance. They’re fighting an uphill battle against that constitution, which enacted several provisions designed to ensure that the military’s role in civilian governance could not be reduced. In particular, amending the constitution requires majority so large that the military, which controls 25 percent of the seats in both houses of parliament, holds an effective veto on the process. The NLD also has to be cognizant of the possibility of coup if it pushes the armed forces too far.


When Donald Trump walked out on his Hanoi summit with Kim Jong-un on Thursday, he claimed that Kim had demanded full sanctions relief in return for dismantling some or all of North Korea’s main nuclear research facility and Yongbyon. It made sense that Trump would reject that demand–while dismantling Yongbyon is a major concession by North Korea, realistically it’s not major enough for the US to lift all of its sanctions. But the North Koreans later rejected this claim and said that Kim only asked for partial sanctions relief, which is substantially more reasonable. Who was telling the truth? The answer may (but probably won’t) shock you:

According to a senior official who briefed the media on condition he not be named because he was not authorized to discuss the negotiations publicly, the North Koreans “basically asked for the lifting of all sanctions.”

But he acknowledged the North’s demand was only for Washington to back the lifting of United Nations Security Council sanctions imposed since March 2016 and didn’t include the other resolutions going back a decade more.

What Pyongyang was seeking, he said, was the lifting of sanctions that impede the civilian economy and the people’s livelihood — as Ri had claimed.

I like to think I have a pretty good handle on the English language, but I’ve honestly never seen the format wherein “basically asked for the lifting of all sanctions” actually means “did not ask for the lifting of all sanctions.” Maybe it’s a regional dialect or something. Kim did ask for the most painful sanctions to be lifted, the ones that attempt to change Pyongyang’s behavior by collectively immiserating the North Korean people, and that still probably wasn’t a reasonable expectation for just Yongbyon. But it wasn’t as absurd as Trump made it out to be, and probably didn’t warrant a walkout. Easing some sanctions in return for closing down Yongbyon would be entirely warranted, and by the way might offer the added benefit of saving a bunch of North Korean lives.

As to whether this is the end of US-North Korean diplomacy, only time will tell. We may be at a point where the best outcome would be for North Korea to sit on its weapons programs and for the United States to chill out until a new presidential administration that actually knows how to conduct negotiations takes over. But though Hanoi was a failure, it provided some much needed clarity in terms of both the US and North Korean negotiating positions, so if Trump and Kim do resume their communications and even try a third summit, they will hopefully be a little more realistic about things.


South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who more than anybody was hoping for a positive outcome on Thursday, wants to mediate between Pyongyang and Washington. Moon’s presidency may be riding on the success of the US-North Korea talks and the easing of sanctions to allow for increased economic cooperation between the two Koreas. In an effort to help smooth things over and get the negotiations back on track, the US and South Korea have reportedly agreed to suspend their annual “Key Resolve” and “Foal Eagle” joint military exercises. North Korea views those exercises as provocations and will no doubt welcome their end. Trump doesn’t like the exercises because he thinks they cost too much, though to be honest that complaint rings a little hollow coming from President Space Force. The US and South Korea plan to replace the large multi-national exercises with some smaller scale joint training programs.


While Moon Jae-in may be scrambling to salvage something from the wreckage in Hanoi, at least one regional leader seems to be just fine with what went down: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe. The Japanese leader is both more hawkish on North Korea than Moon and has been growing increasingly concerned that Trump and Moon were cutting him out of the loop on these negotiations even though Pyongyang represents a serious, arguably existential, security concern for Tokyo. Not only is Abe happy that Trump didn’t cut a deal with Kim that sacrificed Japanese security concerns, but after Thursday’s events, there no longer appears to be a loop from which Abe can be cut.

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