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World roundup: April 13 2023
Stories from Syria, Sudan, Finland, and elsewhere
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: Apologies to those of you who prefer to listen to these roundups via voiceover but I have once again been dealing with what is probably an allergy-related sore throat that’s made it difficult for me to keep up this week. Hopefully I’ll be in better shape next week.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
April 12, 1204: The army of the Fourth Crusade sacks Constantinople, temporarily doing away with the Byzantine Empire.
April 12, 1861: Batteries from the new “Provisional Forces of the Confederate States” open fire on Fort Sumter, in Charleston Harbor, kicking off the American Civil War. The garrison commander, Major Robert Anderson, agreed to surrender and evacuate the fort the following day. Two US soldiers were killed the day after that when some ammunition in the fort exploded during a ceremonial salute to the US flag, but they were the only two fatalities connected with the battle. The fort remained in Confederate hands until they evacuated it in 1865 during William T. Sherman’s war-ending Carolinas campaign.
April 13, 1953: Central Intelligence Agency director Allen Dulles orders the creation of Project MKUltra, a program for human experimentation into “mind control” drugs and techniques. Among its more unsavory components were experiments in which human subjects, often pulled involuntarily from prisons and mental institutions, were dosed with drugs (LSD in particular), usually without their consent. These experiments were conducted on US citizens but also surreptitiously on people overseas in places that came under US control after World War II. Some of the techniques it tested eventually found their way into the Bush-era “enhanced interrogation” (torture) program, and it has spawned innumerable conspiracy theories since its revelation in the post-Watergate environment of the 1970s.
April 13, 1975: An attack by Christian Phalangist militia fighters on a bus carrying Palestinian fighters and civilians in eastern Beirut triggers the Lebanese Civil War.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad’s visit to Saudi Arabia on Wednesday made some headway toward restoring diplomatic relations. Mekdad and Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Waleed Al-Khuraiji reportedly discussed reopening their mutual embassies, resuming direct flights between the two countries, and working towards a “comprehensive political settlement of the Syrian crisis,” whatever that might mean. They also discussed the Captagon trade—the Saudis want the Syrian government to do more to interdict trafficking of that drug to the Gulf. The Saudis did not invite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to May’s Arab League summit in Riyadh, but that invitation may be forthcoming barring some sort of diplomatic setback. The Qatari government is still resisting that idea but I have a hard time imagining it will stand in the way if the Saudis want to issue the invitation.
Reconciliation is in the air across the Middle East. Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry visited Ankara on Thursday, where he and Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu agreed to restore ambassadors. The two countries mutually withdrew their previous ambassadors in 2013, during the fallout over the coup that ousted Egypt’s elected, Muslim Brotherhood-led government. They also promised to “cooperate more closely regarding Libya from now on,” which could help advance that country’s political reconstruction if it actually amounts to anything. If this rapprochement continues it will presumably lead to a meeting at some point between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi—assuming Erdoğan still has his job after May’s election.
At least four people were killed in multiple car bombings in eastern Myanmar’s Shan state on Thursday. The target seems to have been a celebration of the Buddhist new year. There’s been no claim of responsibility but authorities are blaming anti-junta militia fighters for the blasts.
Indonesian police killed two suspected members of the Jemaah Islamiyah militant group during a raid in Lampung province on Wednesday. The Indonesian government is apparently stepping up its anti-JI activities in response to reports that the group has been on a recruiting spree. Another raid on a JI facility in Lampung on Tuesday resulted in four arrests.
Chinese exports were up 14.8 percent last month compared with March 2022, greatly surpassing expectations and indicating that the Chinese economy may be finally emerging from last year’s COVID-related lockdowns. Exports had fallen a total of 6.8 percent over the first two months of this year.
North Korean media is reporting that the weapons that country’s military tested on Thursday was solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile, which if true would mark a significant advance for Pyongyang’s missile program. A solid-fueled ICBM can be stored fully fueled, and thus could be launched much faster than the liquid-fueled version in the unfortunate event something like that became necessary. There’s no confirmation for this claim but the South Korean military has said it believes the missile tested on Thursday was a “new model” so that aligns.
The Sudanese army issued a statement on Thursday warning of a heightened risk of violence after deputy junta leader Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo apparently deployed his “Rapid Support Forces” paramilitary troops in several major Sudanese cities including Khartoum. The statement cited deployments in Khartoum and the northern city of Marawi, the latter of which the RSF claims was a routine operation conducted “within the framework of the law and in full coordination with the leadership of the armed forces.” Dagalo has been critical of his fellow junta leaders in recent months for delaying Sudan’s political transition, possibly in an effort to position himself for a shift to civilian politics.
Tensions are also rising over the status of the RSF itself. The Sudanese military establishment wants to bring that unit under its oversight, but Dagalo favors keeping it independent and reporting directly to whatever civilian authority emerges if/when that aforementioned transition is completed. That dispute has already delayed the transition and threatens to escalate into something much more serious. Al Jazeera is reporting that the army is giving the RSF 24 hours to withdraw from Marawi and that there are indications both sides may be preparing for a fight of some kind.
The Burkinabé junta’s fight against jihadist militants is going so well that it declared a “general mobilization” on Thursday. It’s unclear exactly what that’s going to entail, but an accompanying advisory publised by the junta advised that President Ibrahim Traoré now has “the right to requisition people, goods and services and the right to restrain certain civil liberties.” So that sounds like it should be fine. A state of emergency declaration is likely also forthcoming.
Thursday seems to have passed relatively peacefully in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, following several days of often violent protests related to the Ethiopian government’s plans to bring regional special forces under federal control. Authorities imposed curfews and other restrictions on activity earlier this week but perhaps it took a couple of days for those to fully materialize.
In Russia-related news:
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters on Thursday that there can be no discussion of any prisoner exchange involving arrested Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich until after he’s faced trial. I assume this was meant as a signal to the US government about when Moscow will be ready to deal more than a sober statement of political fact, though the latter is how Ryabkov seems to have framed it. The Russians are also holding former US Marine Paul Whelan, who like Gershkovich has been designated as “wrongfully detained” by the US government.
The Norwegian government on Thursday expelled 15 members of Russia’s diplomatic mission on spying allegations. Russian officials have already signaled their intention to retaliate in kind.
Within the Great Discord Leak of 2023 is a US intelligence assessment that concludes that the Chinese government has agreed to provide “covert shipments of lethal aid to Russia” for use in Ukraine. The US Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which compiled the document in question, says it’s seen no evidence that China has provided any lethal aid to Russia as yet. There’s also a suggestion in the document that Beijing is waiting for a significant Ukrainian attack inside Russia that could be blamed on NATO (i.e., the US) that it could then use as justification for sending arms to Russia.
According to The Washington Post, German authorities investigating the bombing of the Nord Stream gas pipelines last September now believe that the yacht on which they’ve been focusing was only one of several vessels involved in the attack and may have only been used as a “decoy.” The yacht has been at the center of a case alleging that someone affiliated with Ukraine—either the government or just some friendly undersea bombing enthusiasts—was responsible for the attack. The likelier theory, that this was a US operation, apparently remains verboten as far as any official investigation is concerned.
The Russian army claimed on Thursday that its forces had fully encircled Bakhmut. Ukrainian officials are denying that claim and there’s been no independent confirmation one way or the other. If the Russians are able to encircle the city before the Ukrainian military is able to withdraw it would have to be viewed as a tactical blunder by the Ukrainians. They’ve known this was coming for weeks, at least, and have insisted on leaving a very vulnerable garrison in Bakhmut anyway. A Russian takeover of the city will bring them closer to full control of Donetsk oblast, though the Ukrainians could conceivably stem the bleeding if they’re able to retreat in good order and reestablish a new defensive position further west.
The German government has reportedly given Poland permission to send five formerly East German MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. One wonders what’s going to happen when Eastern European countries run out of surplus MiGs to share. Ukraine’s requests for F-16s and other advanced Western aircraft haven’t gone away.
The Hungarian government announced on Thursday that it is quitting the International Investment Bank, one day after the Biden administration blacklisted the Budapest-based institution and three of its executives. The IIB was established in 1970 as the Soviet bloc’s alternative to Western development financing. Of the nine members it still had when Russia invaded Ukraine last year five—Bulgaria, Czechia, Romania, Slovakia, and now Hungary—have quit, leaving Cuba, Mongola, Russia, and Vietnam as its only member states.
Writing for the New Left Review’s “Sidecar” blog, Lily Lynch ruminates on outgoing Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s “Natophilia” and her failure to convert it into domestic political support:
The discourse reached fever-pitch last week when Finland officially entered NATO, almost exactly 75 years after declaring its policy of neutrality. Some 78% of the population supported the move, but this was a recent development. In 2017, that figure stood at only 21%. The newfound Atlanticist fervour has been spearheaded by Marin, whose status as the world’s youngest Prime Minister and penchant for clubbing in Helsinki had already attracted international attention, netting her a luminous profile in British Vogue. Her tough line on Russia later consolidated her stardom. In March she visited Kyiv and laid flowers at the grave of Dmytro Kotsiubailo, a leading figure in the far-right Pravyi Sektor. She also called for heavier arms shipments to Ukraine and backed the construction of a 124-mile fence along Finland’s eastern border, replete with barbed wire to stop Russian men fleeing conscription.
Marin’s Natophilia transformed her into a beacon of hope for Europe’s new progressivism. Light on substance but eminently Instagrammable, this political tendency bases its appeal not on a coherent ideological outlook but on a feel-good millennial relatability. Its modernizing ethos owes more to the New World than the Old; it is just as at home at the Bilderberg Group annual meeting and the WEF stage as it is at the nightclub or pride parade. Under Marin, it has used the moral capital of Nordic pacifism – and the associated traditions of feminism, neutrality and social democracy – in order to destroy it.
Yet Marin’s international star power was not enough to secure victory for the Social Democrats (SDP) in Finland’s parliamentary elections on 2 April. The centre-right National Coalition Party (NCP) returned the best results with 20.8% of the vote, while the far-right Finns Party came a close second on 20.1%: their highest ever tally. Although the SDP won 19.9% and gained three seats, it could not keep its coalition afloat, as the smaller parties – the Left Alliance and the Greens – lost five and seven seats respectively. It appeared that their supporters had cast tactical votes for the SDP in a failed attempt to undermine the Finns (at the SDP’s election night party, the most expensive cocktail on the menu was called ‘Tactical Voting’).
Two Colombian security reports, according to Reuters, estimate that more than 17,600 people are members of one of the country’s many armed groups. That’s a sobering number but seems to be less than those groups themselves would like to claim. Colombian President Gustavo Petro has asked for an accounting of those groups as he tries to negotiate peace-for-amnesty deals with them. I suppose it’s important to figure out who’s actually in these various gangs, rebel groups, and militant factions before you start issuing pardons. Unsurprisingly, the National Liberation Army (ELN) and Clan del Golfo are the two largest armed groups in Colombia.
Finally, US authorities have arrested a Massachusetts Air National Guardsman believed to be responsible for the Great Discord Leak. The New York Times has more details on the suspect, whose motive seems to have been showing off to his Discord buddies rather than anything overtly political. I imagine there will be a number of questions moving forward about how a relatively low-ranking member of the National Guard was able to pull off this leak. There will also be ongoing questions about just how much damage the leaker caused, though The Intercept’s Peter Maass suggests it was probably less than the US government’s panicked response to the leak might indicate:
It is traditional for the government to exaggerate the alleged harms of classified information becoming public, and this appears to be happening again. It first occurred in a big way back in 1971 with the Pentagon Papers, which the government sought to have squelched by the Supreme Court. But the court ruled in favor of the media’s right to publish the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War, and the release of the Pentagon Papers is widely regarded as an essential act of transparency that revealed the hidden truth of America’s conduct in Vietnam.
More recently, the releases of classified information by Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency, and Chelsea Manning, an Army intelligence analyst, were treated by the government as catastrophes that jeopardized human lives. This did not turn out to be true. Documents released by Snowden revealed that the government was engaged in unconstitutional spying on Americans, while information that Manning provided to WikiLeaks showed that U.S. forces killed journalists and civilians in Iraq and lied about it afterward. Despite the government’s dire warnings, subsequent reviews showed that no deaths could be linked to the disclosures by Manning and WikiLeaks. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates even called the government’s rhetoric about those leaks “significantly overwrought.”
What’s somewhat unique about the new documents is that they are quite fresh — some appear to have been written and distributed inside the government as recently as February and contain time-sensitive information about battlefield developments in Ukraine. While transparency experts told The Intercept that some intelligence of this sort might justify the protection of the classification system for a short while, other documents from the leak are either banal or of genuine public interest — in other words, their publication causes no harm or some good.
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