Syria in flux. The U.S.-led coalition in Syria began its withdrawal on Friday. It’s almost certainly going to be a protracted process, and it’s off to a slow start already: A coalition spokesman did not provide many details on the withdrawal, and an unnamed official told CNN merely that “some cargoes” had left. Residents in the areas near border crossings used by U.S. forces reported no large-scale movements of U.S. troops or materiel. On Thursday, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said French President Emmanuel Macron had persuaded U.S. President Donald Trump on the merits of a slower departure. (Le Drian also confirmed that French troops would remain in Syria until a political solution is reached.) Meanwhile, jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which the U.S. and Turkey designated a terrorist organization, has taken control over much of Idlib province following nine days of fighting with the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army. HTS reportedly forced the FSA to accept a truce and to cede civilian control over the bulk of the province to an HTS-backed administration. Ankara reportedly encouraged the FSA to agree to the deal to contain the fighting but acknowledged that it jeopardizes the Russia-Turkey deal to stave off a Syrian offensive in Idlib. Curiously, according to Turkish newspaper Yeni Safak, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have directed their proxies in Syria to ramp up attacks on the FSA.
Iran under pressure at home and abroad. The near-defeat of the Islamic State may be allowing the United States to wash its hands of the unsettled situation in northern Syria, but a persistent threat in the south is holding U.S. attention. Earlier this week, during his contentious visit to Ankara, U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton reportedly presented Turkey with a proposal to maintain U.S. military presence at an outpost in the al-Tanf region, near the Iraqi and Jordanian border. Israel has reportedly been lobbying Washington to remain at the base, which is considered vital to stemming Iranian flows of fighters and supplies into the country. France, meanwhile, called on Iran to halt all activities linked to ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons, following comments from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that Iran would put two satellites into orbit via Iranian missiles in the coming weeks. And new unemployment data from the official Iranian Statistical Center reveals the extent to which the economy is feeling the sting from sanctions: Joblessness among Iranian youth surpassed 27 percent, and more than 40 percent of university graduates are out of work.
Belarus in play? On Thursday, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko made explicit what had been a veiled threat to Moscow, saying that Russia could lose Belarus as an ally if it refuses to compensate Minsk for a plan to charge more for crude oil. Belarus has long purchased subsidized oil products from Russia and has earned a pretty kopek re-exporting them. But Minsk estimates that Russia’s plans to raise prices could cost it $11 billion in lost revenues over the next six years. The two countries negotiated over this point throughout 2018. Lukashenko also threatened to divert Belarus’ oil trade exclusively through the Baltic states and reiterated that his country would resist any Russian effort to effectively annex it. On Friday, meanwhile, the Belarusian Foreign Ministry made a point of announcing that it had had a series of phone conversations with the U.S. State Department. And on Thursday, Foreign Policy magazine reported that Belarus’ government had lifted a cap on the number of U.S. diplomats allowed in the country. Belarus is the key to stability in the Russian borderlands. Neither the U.S. nor Russia wants to see it destabilized, but Minsk has an interest in trying to play the two off each other. The question is whether they can control the resulting potential for instability. Watch this space.
- U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell said he does not expect the U.S. to enter recession in 2019, though he signaled that the Fed would be more cautious before raising interest rates again.
- China’s new aircraft carrier completed its fourth sea trial earlier this week and may be commissioned in the coming months, according to Chinese media.
- Poland has arrested a Chinese employee of embattled telecom giant Huawei on allegations of espionage and searched the company’s local offices.
- Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his British counterpart, Theresa May, agreed to pursue a bilateral economic partnership in line with the recently finalized Japan-EU free trade agreement.
- Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, President Xi Jinping’s top economic adviser, is expected to visit Washington for trade talks before the end of the month, according to U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
- Xi Jinping accepted an offer from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to visit Pyongyang.
- The Central African Republic’s defense minister said the country’s budding military cooperation with Russia would include arms supplies and training services.
- The Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack near the border between Iraq and Saudi Arabia that killed 10 Iraqi border guards.