World update: March 4 2019

I’ve got some things to take care of this evening, so today’s update is a little truncated and early. Back for more tomorrow.



The Syrian Democratic Forces are making slow progress in their offensive to capture the border town of Baghouz and with it ISIS’s last enclave of Syrian territory. Around 500 people reportedly left Baghouz on Monday, including 150 ISIS fighters who surrendered to the SDF. But the advance has been slowed by the revelation that there are still many civilians in Baghouz, more than the SDF apparently expected.


The number of ISIS attacks in Iraq ticked up again in February for the second straight months. That’s the bad news. The less bad news is that Iraq’s 114 likely ISIS attacks in February were only two more than the 112 it suffered in January. That’s a considerably better rate of increase than the 95-to-112 jump from December to January.


The Pentagon has deployed one of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems to Israel. The move represents a warning to Iran, a demonstration of both the US-Israel relationship and THAAD’s ability to be redeployed, and a chance for Lockheed Martin and Raytheon to make a little extra scratch. Elsewhere, Hamas officials say the Egyptian government is once again trying to mediate a ceasefire between the Gazan organization and the Israeli government. Previous Egyptian efforts in this regard have failed, so a “wait and see” approach is probably best.

Polling ahead of Israel’s April Knesset election has begun to paint a coherent picture of the likely outcome: the new centrist Blue and White party, led by former IDF head Benny Gantz, looks like it will emerge as the largest single party, but will not be able to form a governing coalition without at least the support of one of Israel’s Arab parties. Generally that’s been a bridge too far for the Israeli center-left, even though Israeli Arabs are supposed to be equal citizens of The Only Democracy In The Middle East™, and the idea that Gantz might reach out to Israeli Arabs has become a key argument in Benjamin Netanyahu’s not-at-all-racist campaign. Gantz hasn’t said whether or not he’d be willing to do so.


Iran is still abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal. In case you were wondering. The United States is still violating them.



James Dorsey suggests that Turkey’s public criticism over China’s Uyghur internment policy in Xinjiang is putting Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states in a bind. The Kazakhs and other governments in the region, some of whose own nationals have been caught up in the internment program, have been trying to deal with the issue quietly so as not to offend Beijing. But now that a major Muslim state has publicly condemned the practice, the people of those Central Asian states may start wondering why their own governments are unwilling to do the same.


The Trump administration is trying to make sure that India-Pakistan tensions don’t blow back on the peace process in Afghanistan. The US has apparently been “warned” by the Pakistani government that if the situation with India deteriorates further, they’ll have to stop pressuring the Afghan Taliban to negotiate. This is a very “nice peace talks you got there” kind of threat, but it may be effective in keeping the US from gravitating to India’s side if the conflict begins to ratchet up again.


The good news is that all signs indicate the conflict is ratcheting down, not up. The Pakistanis delayed (maybe only for a day) the planned reopening of their national airspace on Monday due to lingering violence in Kashmir, but they did resume several international flights that had previously been suspended. And both cross-border India-Pakistan passenger trains and the Pakistani Kashmir school system have resumed operations as well, which has to be a good sign. Pakistani authorities are also once again promising to crack down against the various militant groups that operate within Pakistan and have links to Pakistan’s national security apparatus. Though they’ve made that promise before and, well, nothing has really changed.


Part of the reason tensions are decreasing is probably that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has gotten everything out of last week’s crisis that he wanted. Specifically, his polling numbers are reportedly on the rise ahead of April’s election. He’s also using opposition demands for proof that last week’s airstrikes on Pakistan actually hit the militant camps Modi’s government claims they did to claim that the opposition hates the troops, which is nonsensical but may be a good wedge issue for his campaign.


Indonesia and Australia signed a swanky new free trade agreement on Monday that could vastly increase their annual trade beyond their paltry current level of $11.6 billion, give or take. It should also improve political relations between the two countries at a time when both are nervous about Chinese expansionism and the status of the US empire.


Speaking of Chinese expansionism and the status of the US empire, Mike Pompeo was in the Philippines late last week to assure the Philippine government that any Chinese attack against Philippine interests in the disputed South China Sea would trigger the 1951 mutual defense pact between Washington and Manila. So that’s exciting.



Perhaps you thought Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s announcement (by proxy) that if he’s reelected next month he’ll only serve for one more year would bring an end to the recent protests against his continued reign. Certainly the people who made that announcement on his behalf hoped it would. But it definitely did not. Hundreds of students across the country skipped classes to protest against a fifth Bouteflika term on Monday. On top of that, a former agriculture minister named Sidi Ferroukhi resigned from parliament and from Bouteflika’s FLN party on Monday. He didn’t explicitly mention Bouteflika in his resignation announcement but his motives seem pretty clear.



The Trump administration has apparently decided to stop treating the European Union as an international organization for diplomatic purposes, and will instead revert to the previous US practice of treating it as a country. None of this really matters, but the latter is the more prestigious designation, and the administration’s decision to downgrade the EU was based on nothing more than pettiness.


The Russian government has suspended its participation in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, following the US decision to withdraw from it completely. This move is a formality and was widely expected, for obvious reasons, but it does further reduce the chances of salvaging the accord.


Celebrity comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy continues to lead in polling ahead of Ukraine’s March 31 election. A new poll has him at just over 25 percent, ahead of both incumbent Petro Poroshenko and former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, both of whom sit a bit over 16 percent. As it looks like nobody’s near the 50 percent line, the election will likely go to a runoff on April 21 and at this point it looks like the real contest is over who will join Zelenskiy in that contest.



Opposition leader Juan Guaidó has returned to Venezuela for the first time since his February 23 attempt to move what he claimed was humanitarian aid into the country fizzled out in the face of resistance from Venezuelan security forces. He was met by supporters at Caracas International Airport and so far has not been arrested though the risk is there.


The Trump administration announced on Monday that it will allow US citizens to sue Cuban firms that have expropriated the property of Cubans who fled the island after the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. It will not, however, allow lawsuits against the European partners of those Cuban firms, as it had been considering–at least not yet. The Helms-Burton Act of 1996 allows US nationals to sue Cuban firms, but every president since Bill Clinton has suspended that provision every six months on national security grounds. This one has decided to stop doing that, so if you’re looking to sue Cuba you’ll be free to do so starting March 19. The administration will maintain the provision against suing European companies doing business in Cuba for at least one more month to allow for further deliberations, but you may be allowed to start suing them as early as April 17. Which is unlikely to do much for the US-Europe relationship.


A second member of Justin Trudeau’s government has quit over the prime minister’s burgeoning corruption scandal. Jane Philpott, previously head of Trudeau’s Treasury Board, resigned on Monday and said she’s “lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter and in how it has responded to the issues raised.” Trudeau is accused of pressuring former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould not to prosecute the SNC-Lavalin construction giant.

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