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TRAGEDY IN THE SKY, POLITICS ON THE GROUND

TRAGEDY IN THE SKY, POLITICS ON THE GROUND

In the days since the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max jet on Sunday, governments around the world have ordered airlines to ground that model until more is known about the causes of the accident. After all, it is the second time that Boeing's top-selling late model jet has gone down in less than six months.

This is first and foremost a human tragedy – and one that hit home for your Wednesday Signal author, who has friends and acquaintances who lost people in the crash. But the global response carries some strong political undercurrents.


For one thing, the first country to suspend 737 Max flights was China, which happens also to be Boeing's most important market for the aircraft. Chinese aviation authorities may have legitimate questions about the plane's safety, but amid a deep trade spat with the US, Beijing is also keenly aware that the flight ban – which quickly spread to more than a dozen other countries – puts huge pressure on Boeing, one of the largest US manufacturing companies.

Second, the countries that have grounded the new 737 did so despite assurances from the US-based Federal Aviation Administration that the aircraft is still airworthy, given actions taken in the wake of the earlier crash and the early stage of the investigation into the latest incident. That's unusual. For decades, the FAA has set the agenda for the safety and regulation of the global aviation industry. Is that changing? The decision of so many countries – including key US allies in Europe – to ground the plane, despite the US regulator saying it has yet to uncover any "systemic performance issue" that would merit such a move, is "almost a rebellion against the FAA" as one astonished industry watcher told Bloomberg. While it's too soon to tell if the FAA's global clout is lastingly weakened, cracks have appeared in what was once simply assumed to be an area in which the US held global regulatory sway. Sound familiar?

Lastly, it doesn't help the FAA – or Boeing for that matter – that several US lawmakers and two big US flight attendants' unions also called on Tuesday to ground 737 Max flights, or that President Trump tweeted in to complain that today's fly-by-wire jets are "far too complex to fly." The President and lawmakers probably felt pressure to say something, given public concern and other governments' reactions to the crash. But it fits a broader pattern in American politics of distrusting experts and taking cues from social media that everyone seems to be jumping into panic mode instead of citing US commercial aviation's safety record or urging the public to wait for the facts to come in.

We'll find out more about the specific cause of this tragedy as investigators (largely from the US, as it happens) examine evidence from the crash site. But in the meantime, it's worth considering the ways in which the aftermath of the crash is reverberating into broader geopolitical themes of the day.

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Special appearances by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, European Central Bank chief Christine Lagarde, and comedian/host Trevor Noah.

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The long-simmering conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan over a region called Nagorno-Karabakh erupted over the weekend, with more than 50 killed (so far) in the fiercest fighting in years. Will it escalate into an all-out war that threatens regional stability and drags in major outside players?

What's the background? For years, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been at odds over the rugged highlands of Nagorno-Karabakh, which lies between them. In the dying days of the USSR, the two sides fought a bloody six-year war to control the enclave, which was part of Muslim-majority Azerbaijan but mainly populated by ethnic Armenian Christians.

The conflict ended in 1994 with over 30,000 dead, more than one million displaced, and a fragile truce that left Nagorno-Karabakh as a de facto independent state, recognized and supported by Armenia but not by most other countries, including Azerbaijan. Low-level clashes have persisted ever since — including deadly skirmishes in 2016 — and both governments often use the conflict to stoke nationalist flames at home.

Although the trigger for the latest violence is still unclear, bilateral tensions have been rising since mid-July, when 16 soldiers died in border clashes. That violence sparked an uproar in Azerbaijan, where thousands of Azeris took to the streets calling for the army to "recapture" Nagorno-Karabakh. Now, both sides are accusing each other of throwing the first punch, and have declared martial law.

A war over the enclave would resonate far beyond the region. The South Caucasus, where Armenia and Azerbaijan are located, has enormous strategic importance because it is crossed by two major energy pipelines that carry Azeri oil and Caspian Sea gas to Turkey and Europe.

Two outside players — Turkey and Russia — are on opposite sides of the conflict. Turkey has close relations with fellow Turkic Azerbaijan, and historically there is little love lost between Ankara and the Armenians. Moreover, Azerbaijan is Turkey's main oil supplier. Turkey has denied reports that it has sent 4,000 Syrians to fight on behalf of the Azeri army, but Turkish President Recep Erdogan's moves here merit close attention.

Russia is the dominant player in the region. But although it sells weapons to both Azerbaijan and Armenia, Moscow keeps troops garrisoned in Armenia and is, technically, treaty-bound to defend the country. If things escalate further, Vladimir Putin will have to decide whether to honor that obligation. Doing so could quickly put Ankara and Moscow on opposite sides of another nasty war (they already back different sides of the civil war in Libya.)

Finally, Iran also as a stake. It borders both countries, and Azeris are Iran's largest ethnic minority. Although Tehran has traditionally backed Yerevan, and often bickers with Baku over energy and security in the Caspian Sea, the Iranians offered to mediate when the latest tensions began two months ago. Will they try again now?

62: In a referendum over the weekend, nearly 62 percent of Swiss voters said they wanted to preserve freedom of movement between the European Union and Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU. The right-wing Swiss People's Party had proposed imposing migration quotas at the border, saying that the current frontier is basically a... (okay, they didn't actually say it's a "Swiss cheese" but still).

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