Discover more from Foreign Exchanges
World roundup: April 11 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, and elsewhere
This is the web version of Foreign Exchanges, but did you know you can get it delivered right to your inbox? Sign up today:
ANNOUNCEMENT: Substack officially rolled out its new Notes feature on Tuesday, so if you’re interested please check that out. I’m not sure what to make of it yet but at the very least it does seem like a good place to encounter other Substack folks and their work without having to wade through much of the noise you’d find on Twitter or other social media outlets.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
April 10, 1815: Indonesia’s Mount Tambora volcano begins the largest eruption in human history with an explosion that was heard 1200 miles away and knocked roughly a full mile off of the volcano’s elevation. The subsequent year, 1816, is known as “The Year Without a Summer” because of the ensuing volcanic winter. The climate effects caused worldwide famine and may have, among other things, contributed to westward migration in the United States and the invention of the bicycle.
April 10, 1998: The governments of the UK and Ireland as well as Republican and Unionist forces in Northern Ireland sign the Good Friday Agreement, ending the Northern Ireland conflict, AKA “The Troubles.” The agreement recognizes Northern Ireland as part of the UK but also left open the possibility of Irish reunification if majorities in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were ever in favor. It also allowed the people of Northern Ireland to claim British or Irish citizenship, or both if they preferred. The deal’s success relied to a great extent on the soft Irish border, owing to the fact that both Ireland and the UK were in the European Union. It very much remains to be seen whether it can survive Brexit.
April 11, 1241: The Battle of Mohi
April 11, 1979: The Tanzania People’s Defense Force, along with a group of Ugandan opposition fighters called the Uganda National Liberation Front, seizes Kampala and forces Ugandan dictator Idi Amin to flee into exile after over eight years in power. Amin sought sanctuary first in Libya and later in Saudi Arabia, where he lived until his death in 2003. His time in power is remembered mostly for its brutality toward ethnic minorities and political opponents, with estimates of the number of people killed on Amin’s orders ranging from around 100,000 at the lower end to upwards of 500,000 at the higher end.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Islamic State fighters reportedly killed three truffle-hunting civilians in Syria’s Homs province on Tuesday. The vulnerability of truffle hunting expeditions has made them a particularly attractive target for IS remnants in Syria, but the threat doesn’t seem to be diminishing the size or frequency of those expeditions. Presumably that’s because truffle gathering is one of a very limited number of options for Syrian civilians whose lives and livelihoods have been brutalized by the economic effects of 12 years of war.
Israeli soldiers killed two militants with the Palestinian “Lion’s Den” group near the West Bank city of Nablus on Tuesday. They’d reportedly attacked an army outpost. Meanwhile, Israeli authorities announced that they’re barring all non-Muslims from visiting the al-Aqsa compound during the last ten days of Ramadan. This is something the Israeli government does routinely, but it’s unsurprisingly not popular among the extremist settler community and thus has drawn an angry response from cabinet members who come from that community. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, for example, accused the government of surrendering to the “whims” of “terrorism” in announcing the ban.
Microsoft discovered traces of the spyware created by the surveillance vendor QuaDream to use against older versions of Apple’s iOS phone software, while Citizen Lab used the data to track down victims. In separate reports, the teams released the most thorough analysis to date on how the spyware works and which countries operated servers for receiving the information the spyware captured.
Microsoft said it found the software during efforts with partners to collect intelligence on sophisticated adversaries. Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto, said it uncovered five victims. The system worked in part by sending malicious calendar invites that would not be seen by the targets.
Some information about QuaDream previously came to light after a marketing brochure was discovered. Media outlets have since identified customers, including Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Singapore.
Citizen Lab said it now has located QuaDream servers in Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Ghana, Israel, Mexico, Romania, Singapore, United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Uzbekistan. It noted that some of those countries, including Mexico and UAE, have widespread human rights issues and have been accused of deploying spyware on peaceful domestic opposition in the past.
An unnamed Egyptian official spoke to local media on Monday to deny a report, emerging from the recent apparent leak of dozens of classified US documents, that Cairo is planning to ship some 40,000 rockets to Russia for use in Ukraine. The official referred to the report as “baseless and unfounded.” Egypt has extensive political and commercial ties to Russia and has refused for the most part to join the Western-led charge to wreck the Russian economy in retaliation for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. But its military is to a large degree dependent on US aid and supplying arms to Russia at this juncture could risk some or all of that support.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
Speaking of the leak, one document has US agents claiming they’d intercepted Russian chatter bragging about a new relationship with the UAE “to work together against US and UK intelligence agencies.” UAE officials are calling this report “categorically false,” but it seems fairly clear that the UAE has been, at a minimum, serving as a conduit for Russian businesses to dodge sanctions. That doesn’t imply any sort of intelligence relationship but it is another case in which an ostensible US ally doesn’t seem to be on board with the “with us or against us” attitude the Biden administration has adopted with respect to Ukraine. It’s possible the Russians were overstating whatever relationship they have with the UAE or that the document itself was altered to overstate what the Russians were claiming. There have been several claims that these leaked documents have been manipulated, and while at least so far such assertions can’t be verified they aren’t beyond the realm of possibility.
Armenian and Azerbaijani officials are trading accusations regarding an apparently serious skirmish between their security forces near the Lachin Corridor, the roadway that links the Nagorno-Karabakh region to Armenia, on Tuesday. At least seven combatants in total—three Azerbaijani, four Armenian—were killed in the clash. Yerevan claims that Azerbaijani forces opened fire on a military unit operating in southern Armenia’s Syunik province, while the Azerbaijanis are claiming that said unit fired on Azerbaijani personnel first. From what I can tell the situation has calmed down though the potential for further escalation is ever present.
Afghan security forces reportedly killed eight National Resistance Front rebel fighters on Tuesday in an operation in Parwan province, near Kabul. An NRF “commander” was among those killed in the raid, as the rebel group later acknowledged.
Four Pakistani police officers were killed on Tuesday as they carried out a raid on a Pakistani Taliban (TTP) hideout in the city of Quetta. One militant “commander” was also killed in the confrontation. Pakistani security forces killed three TTP militants in another raid on Tuesday, this one in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
The Myanmar military reportedly killed at least 50 people, and possibly as many as 100 or more, in an airstrike in the Sagaing region on Tuesday. Myanmar officials have confirmed the strike but are claiming that some of the dead were killed not by their bombs but by rebel explosives. The local “people’s defense force” (one of a number of militias that have emerged across Myanmar in opposition to the ruling junta) claims the target was a ceremony marking the opening of a new PDF office. Elsewhere, over 10,000 people are believed to have crossed the border into Thailand over the weekend to flee fighting between Myanmar security forces and rebel fighters near the town of Shwe Kokko in Kayin State. The Karen National Liberation Army militia and local PDFs reportedly attacked a border guard outpost last Wednesday, sparking a battle that continued through the weekend.
South Korean officials are claiming that a document included in that dump of leaked files has been mostly or entirely fabricated. The document in question alleged that South Korean officials were troubled by a request to buy ammunition that the US made late last year, due to fears that said ammunition would wind up in Ukraine. It appeared to be the product of US surveillance of those South Korean officials. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s office is insisting that any suggestion that the US is spying on him is “utterly false” and aimed at “compromising” South Korea’s “national interest.” Whether it actually believes that is another question. Opposition politicians in South Korea have seized on the report to criticize Yoon, whose administration has brought South Korea into lockstep with Washington. So his office has political reasons to deny any hint of US spying even if it can’t actually refute the charge.
The Australian and Chinese governments have apparently cut a deal to end a three year dispute over barley sales. Back in 2020, Beijing imposed tariff restrictions on the importation of Australian barley among a number of other sanctions it levied in retaliation for the Australian government’s support for an international investigation into COVID’s origins. Since winning last year’s election, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has made an effort to improve relations with China in order to get those restrictions lifted. A Chinese ban on Australian coal has already been rescinded and Australian beef exports to China have also been on the rise.
The Diplomat’s Geoffrey Miller sees indications that New Zealand is moving into closer alignment with NATO:
Last week, New Zealand’s Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta attended the annual NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in Brussels – alongside her counterparts from Australia, Japan, and South Korea.
Mahuta’s participation came after New Zealand’s then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern joined last June’s NATO leaders’ summit in Madrid. Mahuta was also a guest at the NATO foreign ministers’ meeting in April 2022, albeit only in virtual form.
At a more granular level, a NATO military delegation visited New Zealand last month for meetings with officials in Wellington. The head of the delegation said NATO was “determined” to “deepen and strengthen our cooperation with our Indo-Pacific partners.”
New Zealand and the other three countries listed up there comprise what’s been called the “Asia Pacific Four” or “AP4,” an informal unit that appears to be fundamental to NATO’s effort to make itself relevant to the New Cold War. While they’re not in line to join NATO (at least not anytime soon), all four seem on a path toward becoming informal members, which among other things likely means they’ll be increasing military spending to try to meet NATO’s 2 percent of GDP minimum.
Another oil tanker, this time the Singaporean-registered Success 9, has reportedly been attacked by pirates in the Gulf of Guinea. Singapore’s Maritime and Port Authority says the vessel was boarded some 300 nautical miles off the coast of Ivory Coast on Monday. The status of the crew is unknown and it’s not clear whether the attackers’ plan is to ransom them or to seize the ship’s cargo (or both). The Gulf of Guinea remains a major piracy hotspot. Attackers seized another tanker in that waterway last month, eventually abandoning it and abducting some of its crew.
Violence is continuing to escalate in Ethiopia’s Amhara region over Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s decision to bring regional special forces under a federal government command structure. Protests broke out in several sites across Amhara on Tuesday and turned violent in at least one, the town of Kombolcha, amid reports that federal security forces attempted to arrest a group of Amhara special forces fighters. There are unconfirmed reports of casualties, including one eyewitness claiming that at least five people were killed and another report that at least 12 wounded people were taken to a hospital in a neighboring town. Two people were killed in an explosion in the Amhara regional capital, Bahir Dar, on Monday, but there’s still no indication as to what caused that blast let alone whether it was connected to these protests.
The Great Document Leak may have repercussions for Ukraine’s supposedly planned Spring Offensive, in a couple of ways. Most obviously, there are documents that were part of the leak that apparently reveal details about the offensive, which could force planners back to the proverbial drawing board. But of possibly greater import is a “bleak assessment,” as The Washington Post put it, of Ukraine’s preparations:
Ukraine’s challenges in massing troops, ammunition and equipment could cause its military to fall “well short” of Kyiv’s original goals for an anticipated counteroffensive aimed at retaking Russian-occupied areas this spring, according to U.S. intelligence assessments contained in a growing leak of classified documents revealing Washington’s misgivings about the state of the war.
Labeled “top secret,” the bleak assessment from early February warns of significant “force generation and sustainment shortfalls,” and the likelihood that such an operation will result in only “modest territorial gains.” It’s a marked departure from the Biden administration’s public statements about the vitality of Ukraine’s military and is likely to embolden critics who feel the United States and NATO should do more to push for a negotiated settlement to the conflict.
None of this is exactly surprising, but it does suggest that a delayed offensive, or no offensive at all, might be preferable from the Ukrainian perspective.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to China has apparently not gone over terribly well in the US and in other parts of Europe:
French officials were in damage control mode on Tuesday as they tried to contain anger, division and confusion sparked by President Emmanuel Macron’s comments on Europe’s dependence on the United States and its relations with China and Taiwan.
Macron's comments came in an interview on a trip to China that was meant to showcase European unity on China policy, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also taking part, but highlighted differences within the European Union.
In the interview with French daily Les Echos and news portal Politico published on Sunday, Macron called for the EU to reduce its dependence on the U.S. and to become a “third pole” in world affairs alongside Washington and Beijing.
The thing that seems to be causing the most consternation is a response Macron gave during that interview in which he essentially said that Taiwan’s status isn’t Europe’s problem and it would be a mistake for European governments to let the US suck them into that particular conflict. Which…isn’t wrong, necessarily. It’s not even a position that’s uncommon in European politics. It’s just not something that most prominent politicians would say openly, especially not while on a lavish state visit to China.
An apparent gang attack on a port in northern Ecuador’s Esmeraldas province left at least nine people dead on Tuesday. Ecuadorean Interior Minister Juan Zapata told reporters that 30 “heavily armed” gunmen were involved in the attack, the rationale for which is not clear. Authorities placed Esmeraldas province under a state of emergency last month due to escalating criminal violence.
Finally, POLITICO—which, if nothing else, has cultivated a wide array of sources within the US government—reports on the Biden administration’s chaotic effort to calm allies impacted by the document leak:
Senior U.S. officials are racing to placate frustrated and confused allies from Europe to the Middle East to Kyiv following the leak of highly classified information about the war in Ukraine and other global issues.
After the news of the leak broke last week, senior intelligence, State Department and Pentagon officials reached out to their counterparts to quell worries about the publishing of the intel, according to four officials — an American, two Europeans and one Five Eyes member — familiar with those conversations.
One said that members of the Five Eyes — the intelligence consortium of the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand — have asked for briefings from Washington but have yet to receive a substantive response. Inquiries have been sent separately to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Meanwhile, officials in London, Brussels, Berlin, Dubai and Kyiv questioned Washington about how the information ended up online, who was responsible for the leak and what the U.S. was doing to ensure the information was removed from social media. They also questioned whether the Biden administration was taking steps to limit the distribution of future intelligence. As of Monday morning, U.S. officials had told allies the administration was investigating and that they were still trying to understand the full scope of the leak, the European officials said.
Thanks for reading! Foreign Exchanges is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.