The peace process in the southern Philippines took a huge and improbable step forward. A year ago, ethnic Moro jihadists were going toe to toe with the Philippine military and its international partners in the city of Marawi, a provincial capital in the restive southern region of Mindanao. Today, moderate Moro separatist groups are celebrating Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s signing of what’s known as the Bangsamoro Organic Law, which will give ethnic Moros in the region substantially greater autonomy over their native homeland. The BOL, whose passage was repeatedly stalled by thorny political and security issues in the past, is the implementing legislation of a landmark 2014 peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the most powerful separatist group in Mindanao. The overriding goal is to take the air out of local jihadist recruiting efforts, while empowering and incentivizing moderate Moro groups like the MILF to keep their more radical brethren in check – an approach that has helped contain jihadist movements in Indonesia and Malaysia. The law could still be scuppered by the Supreme Court or in a plebiscite, and it won’t address every deep-rooted issue in the southern Philippines. But considering the long odds it faced in even getting to this point – and the instability risk Mindanao poses to the region if local grievances are allowed to fester – the signing of the BOL calls for a rare dose of optimism.

The U.S. wants to change Iranian behavior in the Middle East, not the Iranian regime itself. At least that’s what U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Friday amid reports that Australia believes the U.S. is laying the groundwork for strikes on Tehran’s nuclear facilities. Regardless, the U.S. is continuing to take steps to isolate the Islamic republic. According to Reuters, the U.S. is redoubling efforts to forge an “Arab NATO” involving the six Gulf Arab states, Egypt and Jordan to contain Iran. Unnamed administration sources say the U.S. is hoping to start realizing its vision for the bloc, expected to be called the Middle East Strategic Alliance, at a summit in Washington in mid-October. The devil will be in the details, of course, and it’s not immediately clear how a formal bloc would function any differently than the current U.S.-led alliance structure in the region. Even less clear is how to address the proposed bloc’s internal divides, particularly involving Qatar, the Gulf Cooperation Council member most sympathetic toward Iran and home to the largest U.S. airbase in the region.

Honorable Mentions

  • Shortly after North Korea handed over what it says are the remains of 55 U.S. troops killed during the Korean War, Mattis raised the seemingly longshot possibility that the Pentagon could deploy U.S. military teams to North Korea to search for additional such remains.
  • Japan and the U.S. conducted a joint exercise involving U.S. B-52 bombers in Japanese airspace – one of the first publicly acknowledged major drills in the region since Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in June.
  • The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Council says it and Damascus have agreed to establish joint committees to sketch out a roadmap for negotiations on decentralization.
  • China’s top importer of U.S. soybeans – which had employed some 6,000 people – has reportedly gone belly up due China’s counter-tariffs on the U.S.
  • China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are reportedly set to accelerate talks on a code of conduct in the South China Sea.
  • The foreign ministers of the two Koreas are set to meet in Singapore next week on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum.
  • Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is reportedly planning a state visit to Germany in late September.
  • Iran wants to launch a state-backed digital currency to help it sidestep new U.S. sanctions.