Sep 24, 2019

Axios World

Welcome back to Axios World. Apologies for the late departure. Hope tonight's 1,494-word (6-minute) trip is worth the wait.

  • Please tell your friends and colleagues to sign up, and I'd love your tips and feedback: I'm off to New York in the morning for the UN General Assembly.

We begin this edition with a conversation with journalist James Verini, who covered the fall of the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Iraq.

1 big thing: On the ground in the war on ISIS

Iraqi forces in the offensive on Mosul. Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

James Verini arrived in Iraq just as “the climactic battle” of the war against the Islamic State was about to begin.

The big picture: Verini remained in Mosul for nearly a year and documented the fight to reclaim Iraq’s second city in his new book, “They Will Have to Die Now.” But while ISIS’ caliphate ended with the liberation of Mosul in July 2017, Verini tells me, “I fear that in the larger sense, what we’re seeing is not a liberation.”

  • Flashback: Many residents of Mosul enthusiastically greeted the American invasion in 2003, the arrival of ISIS a decade later and then — after suffering under the caliphate — their Iraqi liberators. The cycle of violence and disillusionment has “brutalized” the country, Verini says.
  • ISIS' rise and fall have left suspicions and resentments that will "be felt for generations," he says. One consequence of the open wound in the battered country, he adds, is “easy recruitment for whatever follows ISIS.”

Verini peppers the book with the tension, boredom and absurdity of war.

  • One soldier remarks warily that ISIS fights fiercely on Fridays, spurred on by sermons from its bloodthirsty imams. Another tells of saving a single bullet with which to kill himself if captured.
  • An Iraqi major, meanwhile, finds himself constantly on the phone with his worried mother even in the midst of battle.
  • "Between the bouts of violence and prayer and painting things black," Verini writes of life in the caliphate, "there was absolutely nothing to do.”

Most revealing are his conversations with ordinary Moslawis.

  • One of the book’s central characters admits without shame that he had “welcomed” ISIS. “They came in as revolutionaries,” he says, offering freedom and dignity.
  • His opinion changed, he says, when the full brutality of the group became clear and his son joined their ranks.
  • Another central character, a former refugee now returned home, is so dispirited by the state of his life, his city and his country after the war that he is already nostalgic for life under ISIS, when everyone was “too afraid” to commit theft or corruption.

Verini attempts to place the battle into the histories of Iraq and of Mosul, from ancient conquerors through the U.S. occupation.

  • Past and present constantly collide. Mosul is “one of the oldest cities on earth,” Verini writes. But it’s also one where “3G is standard,” making it “impossible to truly enslave anyone.”
  • At one point, Verini enters the Mosul Museum through “a hole blasted in the exterior wall” to find ancient Assyrian treasures, some intact but most destroyed. In the basement, he makes another discovery: a trove of ISIS propaganda.

This was a thoroughly modern battle, though, as some of the most jarring passages of Verini’s book make clear.

  • He writes of Kurdish peshmerga fighters — only recently “driven to the front by proud and worried family members” — snapping selfies between skirmishes.
  • Verini also describes his shock upon realizing airstrikes, which the Pentagon insisted were carefully coordinated, were being planned from an abandoned building over WhatsApp.
2. An American in Mosul

An airstrike by the U.S.-led coalition in Mosul. Photo: Ahmad Al-Rubaye/AFP/Getty Images

Verini’s identity as an American surfaces continually in his narrative and in his conversations with Iraqis.

  • “As an American journalist in Iraq in 2016, you’ve got two lawyers of ruin for which you are in some part responsible,” he tells me. The first is the American invasion and occupation. The second is the rise of ISIS.
  • “There the responsibility is somewhat more removed, but it’s still very present,” he says. “Because ISIS would not exist, or certainly not exist in this way, if not for the American adventure in Iraq.”

Verini says the U.S. will "almost certainly forget the lessons of this war."

  • One of those lessons, he contends, is that ISIS was not produced by a sudden wave of religious fanaticism. Most Iraqis who joined, he says, "weren't zealots, or even particularly devout."
  • The group's skill with propaganda, its ambition and its sadism propelled it to heights that had seemed unfathomable.
  • But, he argues, ISIS was also born out of a history that Americans haven't fully come to terms with.

Go deeper: Where U.S. troops and military assets are deployed in the Middle East

3. Ukraine: The man in the middle

Zelensky. Photo: STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky, a former comedian with no political experience, entered office in May knowing he’d have to manage high expectations, a war with Russia and difficult anti-corruption reforms.

He probably didn’t expect to find himself in the middle of a U.S. political scandal involving the sitting president and the man polls suggest is most likely to replace him.

The latest: President Trump has confirmed he discussed Biden and his son Hunter in a call with Zelensky over the summer that prompted a whistleblower complaint.

  • He denied there was a quid pro quo tied to $250 million in aid the Trump administration had frozen and later released, Axios’ Usrula Perano writes.
  • Trump told reporters it would "probably be ok" if he had pressured Ukraine on the issue, but said he didn't because the Ukrainians "know about corruption, they probably know that Joe Biden and his son are corrupt."
  • There is no evidence for Trump and Rudy Giuliani's claims that Biden pressured Ukraine to fire a prosecutor because he was investigating his son, according to a New York Times fact-check.

Between the lines: With pressure from both directions, Zelensky may find it difficult to preserve “the bipartisan consensus that has firmly supported Ukraine against Russia since 2014,” per the Washington Post.

What to watch: Trump and Zelensky are slated to meet Wednesday at the UN General Assembly.

4. World news roundup: UNGA week in NYC

Trump leaves the climate summit after Angela Merkel's speech. Photo: Kay Nietfeld/picture alliance via Getty

1. Trump made a brief appearance today at the climate summit that kicked off high-level week at the UN General Assembly.

  • He then hosted a smaller gathering on religious freedom. He did not, as some anticipated, mention the internment of Uighur Muslims in China, the Guardian's Julian Borger reports.
  • Trump met today with the leaders of Pakistan, Poland, Egypt, Singapore, South Korea and New Zealand.
  • His big speech comes tomorrow, along with meetings with the leaders of the U.K., India, Iraq and the UN.

2. Trump also appeared Sunday before a 50,000-strong crowd that had gathered in Houston to welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

  • "This was quite a turnaround for [Modi]. For almost a decade he was denied a visa to visit America, because of his alleged role in the Gujarat riots in 2002, which left hundreds of people, mainly Muslims, dead," the Economist notes.
  • Trump's comments at the "Howdy Modi" rally that border security is "vital" to the U.S. and India come weeks after India sent thousands of troops into Indian-administered Kashmir, Axios' Rebecca Falconer writes.

3. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won't be at the UNGA. He and his rival Benny Gantz met on Monday for the first time since this month's elections, Axios contributor Barak Ravid reports.

  • President Reuven Rivlin is looking to broker a power-sharing deal between the 2 that will include a rotation in the prime minister job — a major obstacle.
  • Both Gantz and Netanyahu demand that they serve first for a term of 2 years, Gantz because his party won more seats in the election and Netanyahu because it's likely the only way that he can avoid pending indictments for corruption.
5. Middle East: Anger on Egypt's streets

Protests in Cairo. Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Chaotic protests across Egypt this weekend — prompted by videos exposing corruption in President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi's military-backed government — underscore the population's weariness with economic hardship due in part to government austerity measures, Carnegie’s Michele Dunne writes for Axios Expert Voices.

Why it matters: While Sisi markets Egypt as an island of stability in a turbulent region, popular dissatisfaction with his regime threatens that image. Whether the protests escalate or fizzle, the country remains a potential powder keg.

Where it stands: Authorities have arrested several hundred protestors so far. Meanwhile, Sisi is in New York for the meeting of the UN General Assembly.

  • While most of this weekend's protests involved no more than a few hundred people each, they are the most significant demonstrations since Sisi took power in a military coup in 2013.

Background: Sisi has ruled with an iron fist, killing several thousand and imprisoning some 60,000.

  • Nearly all political and social movements active before the coup have been crushed.
  • Sisi has cut government expenditures but prioritized expensive vanity projects, such as a new administrative capital, over core needs like labor force development and water conservation.

The bottom line: While there is no clear path to peaceful change, Sisi’s continued rule promises to drive Egyptians into increasingly desperate circumstances, as well as to increase security headaches for Europe and the U.S., which funds Egypt’s military to the tune of $1.3 billion annually.

6. Saving the local watering hole

A closed café in the village of Fourqueveaux. Photo: Eric Cabanis/AFP

I spent the weekend at my parents' house in Massachusetts and picked up the Boston Globe to find a front-page story about the decline in Irish pubs.

As it turns out, France is going through a similar phenomenon — a “mass die-off of … iconic cafes,” as AP described it today, “from 200,000 to fewer than 40,000 in a half-century.”

  • “The social-glue role of cafes as places where the French mingle, find friendship and sometimes love, squabble, mourn and celebrate, is seen as being so vital for the national well-being that a mentor and political ally of President Emmanuel Macron is launching a $165 million rescue plan for 1,000 of them.”
  • “It is focusing on small villages off the beaten track where the shuttering of cafes is often a drama because the closures leave inhabitants with few, if any, alternative places to socialize.”
  • Bon courage!
7. Stories we're watching

Oktoberfest opens on Saturday in Munich. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

  1. In photos: Youth climate protests take over the world
  2. Climate scientists launch biggest polar expedition ever
  3. Iran says it will release British tanker
  4. U.K.'s Labour Party votes not to campaign against Brexit
  5. Senate's Hong Kong human rights bill edges closer to passage
  6. Trudeau’s pivot: Vows to ban assault rifles
  7. Polio returns to the Philippines after 19-year absence


“I would get a Nobel Prize for a lot of things, if they give it out fairly, which they don't.”
— Donald Trump