Shiite militias in Syria are suffering pay its as Iran struggles financially. In interviews with The New York Times, Shiite militia fighters – including members of Hezbollah – said they had missed paychecks and were receiving lower pay. (Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, has also admitted the financial pinch caused by U.S. sanctions.) The editor of a Syrian magazine mentioned that, given the state of disrepair of Syria, more money from Iran would be nice but that Tehran may not be able to provide funding any more. Other Shiite and Palestinian factions in Syria have complained that the quality of their food is deteriorating, and that their families are also receiving less pay. This kind of evidence points to our 2019 forecast – that Iran’s financial strain would cause it to withdraw, to some degree, from theaters such as Syria.

China’s crackdown on religion. Beijing shut down a large Protestant church in Beijing last weekend, according to a new report from RFA. Elsewhere, authorities in the economic powerhouse city of Guangzhou have offered rewards of between 100 and 3,000 yuan ($15-$447) to informants who report “illegal religious activities” by local groups – and between 5,000 and 10,000 yuan for tips leading to the arrest of foreign religious leaders. The dragnet isn’t limited to Christians. China’s approach to Tibet has reportedly taken a hard-line turn, with a new Chinese Communist Party white paper nixing a policy calling for engagement with the Dalai Lama, while Chinese police have reportedly tightened surveillance around Buddhist monasteries where protests have occurred in the past. And in Xinjiang, according to the U.S. State Department, some of the Uighur Muslims being held in internment camps are believed to be legal U.S. residents – even U.S. citizens. Bottom line: What Beijing fears isn’t so much religion itself, but rather any civil society institutions capable of organizing and mobilizing followers against the state.

Trade deals are hard to implement. The latest round of trade talks in Beijing ended with little more than an agreement to pick them back up again on Wednesday in Washington. It’s hard to gauge progress, but statements from both sides make it reasonably clear that they remain stuck on the question of just how broadly and quickly U.S. tariffs would be lifted as part of a deal. Naturally, China wants them gone. The U.S., of course, wants to leave some in place to ensure that Beijing follows through on its concessions. A similar issue now appears to be threatening the U.S. Congress’ ratification of the updated NAFTA, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which the White House hopes to see approved by August. Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, is demanding that tariffs on Mexican and Canadian steel and aluminum be lifted before moving forward. But trade hawks in the administration are insisting that the duties remain until Canada and Mexico accept quotas on their metals exports.

In the Philippines, the world’s longest-running communist insurgency turned 50. To mark the Friday anniversary, the rebel New People’s Army launched a spate of small-scale attacks in Luzon and threatened more. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte rose to national prominence as mayor of the Mindanao city of Davao, in part, for his success in pacifying the restive southern region. His approach was notoriously ruthless but also savvily diplomatic. And upon winning the presidency, Duterte took on deeply entrenched anti-communist factions in Manila by appointing a handful of far-left Cabinet members and challenged regional oligarchs by pushing through policies, such as mining reform, aimed at quelling grassroots support for the rebellion. Duterte may have been singularly well-suited to bring an end to the insurgency, but on a national scale, peace has remained elusive. The rebellion is highly decentralized, with semi-autonomous cells operating in isolated pockets across the geographically fragmented country, and many have evolved into organized crime syndicates with little material interest in a settlement. As a result, peace talks with exiled senior communist leaders have routinely been derailed by attacks that have made it politically difficult for Manila to stay the course. The insurgency is nowhere near the threat to the Philippines as it was before the turn of the century; the military considers the NPA largely a spent force. But its longevity still speaks to the difficulty of unifying and governing the Philippines – and the cracks that will keep the country vulnerable to external meddling as competition for its loyalties by outside powers intensifies.

Honorable Mentions

  • Ukraine will hold presidential elections on March 31.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump has again threatened to close the border with Mexico, and again has cited a migrant caravan as the reason.
  • A delegation from Somaliland met with Egyptian officials in Cairo to explore opportunities for bilateral cooperation.
  • New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Sunday.
  • Disputed elections in the East African island nation of Comoros and the arrest of the opposition presidential candidate led to an outbreak of gunfire at a military base in the capital, Moroni, and the deaths of three renegade soldiers who reportedly had escaped from prison.
  • Hundreds of thousands of people protested in the streets of Algeria – even after the long-serving president promised to recuse himself from re-election. Earlier this week, a high-ranking general called for the presidency to be vacated.
  • The deputy leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which props up the British minority government, said he would prefer remaining in the European Union if the alternative jeopardizes Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom.
  • Officials from Russia and Ethiopia are expected to sign a series of agreements next month on nuclear energy, tourism, and trade.