THREE HITS IN THE KEY OF: NO, NOT THAT STORY

Sometimes one big story or narrative in a given part of the world can divert people’s attention from other, similar things that are happening there at the same time. Here’s a quick run through a few stories that aren’t actually the stories you’ve heard most about...


The Latin American refugee crisis that’s not in Venezuela.

The economic catastrophe wrought by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has driven millions from his country, but there is a growing exodus from Nicaragua now too, as thousands flee the political and economic turmoil that began earlier this year amid protests and a brutal crackdown by President Daniel Ortega. Most of those fleeing are headed south into Nicaragua’s prosperous and stable neighbor Costa Rica. (Going north would mean entering Honduras, one of the world’s most violent countries).

In recent years, the so-called “Northern Triangle” Central American nations of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, have become some of the most violent places on earth, wracked by gang violence, drug trafficking and weak governments. But the deepening crisis in Nicaragua, and growing refugee flows, could begin to test stability there and in Costa Rica as well.

The impending final bloodbath in a Middle East civil war that’s not in Syria.

The fragile fate of Syria’s Idlib province — the last remaining holdout against Bashar Al Assad’s Russian-backed war machine — has gotten much attention in recent weeks. But Yemen’s four-year-old civil war may be headed for a violent final showdown, as well. As a reminder, the war started in 2014 when the Houthis, Shiite rebels with ties to Iran, ousted a Saudi-backed government, prompting intervention by a Saudi-led coalition of Gulf States with US help.

The war has already created the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, claiming the lives of more than 15,000 civilians, amid human rights violations on all sides. Following the recent collapse of peace talks, the UAE says it will retake the strategic port city of Hodeidah from the Houthis. Even beyond the impact of urban warfare on the city’s 600,000 remaining residents, Hodeidah is the port of entry for 70 percent of the food and medicine that goes to Yemen. With about three-quarters of the population dependent on that foreign aid, a battle for Hodeidah could have catastrophic ripple effects throughout the war-ravaged country.

The persecuted religious minority in China that’s not Xinjiang’s Muslims

China has been in the spotlight recently for its discriminatory and repressive policies towards Muslims, and Tibet sometimes makes the news as well, but there’s another minority of religious believers that struggles to worship freely in the country. China’s 60 million Christians have for decades been forced to choose between state-approved churches and underground places of worship that the state cracks down on – sometimes with bulldozers.

In particular, China’s 10 million Catholics have until now had to navigate a system in which Beijing and the Holy See -- which cut ties in 1951 -- each appoint bishops whom the other refuses to recognize. Over the weekend, the two sides took a big step towards reconciliation with an agreement under which the Vatican will recognize several government-appointed bishops and sideline several of its own appointees. In return, China will give the Pope a say in new appointments.

The agreement sparked criticism—from Catholics who don’t want to give an atheist authoritarian government influence over spiritual matters and from Chinese Communist Party officials who object to ceding any sovereignty over internal religious affairs to the Pope.

I’ll leave you with the question my fellow Signalista Willis posed to me: Is this the Pope bowing to the reality of China’s power, or China bowing to the reality of the Pope’s power?

The Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace launched in 2018 with the commitment of signatories to stand up to cyber threats like election interference, attacks on critical infrastructure, and supply chain vulnerabilities. Last week, on the first anniversary of the call, the number of signatories has nearly tripled to more than 1,000 and now includes 74 nations; more than 350 international, civil society and public sector organizations; and more than 600 private sector entities. These commitments to the Paris Call from around the world demonstrate a widespread, global, multi-stakeholder consensus about acceptable behavior in cyberspace.

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In recent years, Republicans have come to dominate most of the state legislatures in the US. Ironically, it was during the Obama-era that the GOP made major headway in states that had long been considered safely blue. State legislatures are now redder than they've been in nearly a century, and in most parts of the country, one party holds all the levers of power (governorship and legislatures). For the first time since 1914, there's only one split legislature in the entire country: Minnesota. To be sure, some state races are bucking the trend: Kentucky and Louisiana, both deep-red states, recently elected Democratic governors. Here's a look at how Democratic and Republican control of state legislatures has evolved over the past four decades.

Forty years ago, Islamic extremists angry at the Saudi government's experiments with social liberalization laid siege to the Grand Mosque of Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.

To regain control, the House of Saud had to strike a deal with key conservative clerics whose blessing they needed in order to send troops into the mosque . The monarchy agreed to roll back all liberalization at home, and pledged to actively fund the spread of conservative wahhabi Islamic teachings around the globe.

To understand better how the repercussions of those choices are still with us today, we put some questions to Yaroslav Trofimov, chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and author of the magnificently written 2007 book The Siege of Mecca.

His answers have been lightly edited for clarity.

Why is it important to mark the 40th anniversary of the siege?

YT: We are at a historic moment once again in Saudi Arabia, with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman openly talking about how he wants to rectify the errors of 1979 and bring the country into a more socially liberal system. And he has done a lot already, allowing women to drive and lifting many other restrictions, allowing pop concerts, cinemas, tourism — all those things that remained banned in Saudi Arabia because of the 1979 deal between the House of Saud and the clerics. We are obviously talking about social as opposed to political liberalization now, as the kingdom's political system remains as oppressive as ever.

How did the event change Saudi Arabia's society?

YT: The 1979 events gave the upper hand to religious conservatives for nearly four decades, freezing the social reforms and keeping the kingdom's population under control of the religious establishment and its Vice and Virtue Police. That had repercussions in every sector, most notably education, which created a new generation steeped in ultra-conservative Islamic values. It is only after the 2001 attacks [of 9/11] that this began to change, with the most dramatic erosion of the clerics' power happening since 2016.

How did the siege affect Riyadh's foreign policy?

YT: The new pact between the clerics and the House of Saud also meant that the Saudi oil money was to be used to spread its ultra-conservative version of Islam around the world, at the expense of more moderate and open interpretations. That changed the discourse in Islamic countries all over, and indirectly fostered the rise of extremism.

The siege came a few months after the Iranian revolution, how did that play into things?

YT: There was a lot of confusion at first, as the US blamed Iran for the Mecca events and Iran blamed the US. But, all in all, the siege taught the Saudi royal family that the best way to confront Iran's aspirations to lead the pan-Islamic revolution was to stoke Sunni sectarianism that dismissed Iranians as not really Muslim because of their Shiite faith.

That became a point of convergence between the supporters of Juhayman [al-Oteibi, leader of the siege], the Saudi clerics, and the Saudi government. And we see the repercussions of that rise of Sunni-Shiite sectarianism across the region today.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman says he is trying to move Saudi Arabia back onto the pre-1979 course of social liberalization. Is that possible?

YT: Well, empirically it is happening. I refer you to the piece I just wrote from Saudi Arabia for the WSJ. Times are changing and the influence of social media and the internet in general on young Saudis is massive, opening up their minds. Also, hundreds of thousands of young Saudis have traveled to the US to study on King Abdullah scholarships in the past decade, bringing back fresh ideas.

So far the backlash to the changes in the kingdom has been very limited. The question is: is Prince Mohammed dragging a reluctant kingdom into modernity, or was the society changed and reachable all along? We'll see what happens in the coming years.

In many ways the Siege of Mecca is the story of unintended consequences: of leaders tolerating (and even supported) extremists who ended up turning on their masters. Is there a comparable situation today that worries you?

YT: Well, history is full of unintended consequences. Did Putin expect Ukraine to harden as a nation-state and decisively turn toward the West as a result of his [invasion of the country] in 2014? My guess is no: he expected it to crumble.

On the question of jihadists, I think countries have learned since 2001 and since the rise of Islamic State that extremist proxies are dangerous. How long will that lesson hold?

Time will tell.