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World roundup: April 14 2022
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Afghanistan, Ukraine, and more
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: I realize I just got back to a regular schedule but I received news earlier today about a family health situation that may require me to be on the road a bit over the next few days and possibly beyond. I will endeavor to cause as little disruption as possible but, for example, I will have to skip tomorrow’s roundup and there may be other random days where I’m unable to write moving forward. Basically I’m saying please don’t be alarmed if there’s an interruption in the newsletter here and there.
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
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.
April 14, 43 BC: The legions of Mark Antony win a victory and suffer a defeat on the same day in the Battle of Forum Gallorum in northern Italy. Antony was besieging the governor of Cisalpine Gaul, Decimus Brutus, who was one of Julius Caesar’s assassins, when he was confronted by a Republican army under the command of that year’s consuls, Aulus Hirtius and Gaius Vibius Pansa. The consular army had been bolstered by a group of veteran reinforcements under Caesar’s declared heir, his great nephew/adopted son Octavian, who commanded the units guarding their camp. Antony’s army attacked the portion of the Republican force led by Pansa and won a fleeting victory before they were themselves attacked by the remaining Republican army under Hirtius and were forced to withdraw. Pansa was badly wounded and would die on April 22. The outcome of Forum Gallorum was inconclusive and led to a second, decisive engagement, the Battle of Mutina, a week later.
April 14, 1912: Shortly before midnight, the allegedly unsinkable ocean liner RMS Titanic strikes an iceberg and, well, begins sinking. In part due to the fact that it carried enough lifeboats for only about half of the passengers on board (and a third of the passengers it could have carried at full capacity), the Titanic’s sinking became one of the biggest maritime disasters in history, killing more than 1500 people.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Syrian state media is reporting an apparent Israeli missile strike west of Damascus. There’s no word on what the strike was targeting or on any casualties, but generally in these situations it takes a day or so for those details to trickle out.
Elsewhere, the Syrian Democratic Forces militia is reportedly besieging Syrian government-held enclaves in two northeastern Syrian cities—Qamishli and Hasakah. They’re doing this in retaliation for an apparent government siege of the predominantly-Kurdish Sheikh Maqsood neighborhood in the city of Aleppo, which the SDF claims has been in place since the beginning of April. Each side is accusing the other of trying to starve civilian populations in their respective enclaves, and so far Russian efforts to mediate a resolution have failed.
Israeli occupation forces killed another six Palestinians in various parts of the West Bank overnight and into the day on Thursday. Two of the six were killed in Jenin, which has become a flashpoint in an Israeli crackdown following a series of recent terrorist attacks in Israel. The other killings took place in the cities of Bethlehem, Nablus, and Ramallah. This Israeli crackdown is approaching a level at which I think a response from Hamas and/or Islamic Jihad in Gaza could be in the offing, in which case it is perhaps not coincidental that the Israeli military announced on Thursday that it has successfully tested a laser-based missile defense system. It’s unclear what “successful” means in this context, but Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz suggested the system could be deployed within months as a complement to Israel’s other air defense systems (the “Iron Dome” interceptor program, for example).
The International Atomic Energy Agency announced on Thursday that Iran is building a new centrifuge manufacturing facility at Natanz to replace a previous facility at Karaj that was destroyed in an apparent Israeli attack. Advanced centrifuges enable the Iranians to enrich uranium more efficiently and in theory shorten the time it would take them to amass enough material for a nuclear weapon. Natanz is a large complex that is partially underground, so it’s theoretically more secure than the Karaj facility was. The IAEA says it has installed monitoring cameras at the site, though it’s still unable to access the data collected by any of its cameras in Iran because of the collapse of the 2015 nuclear deal—which, for the record, limited Iran to using much more primitive and inefficient centrifuge models.
A new report from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and Afghan Peace Watch highlights a rising tide of violence in Afghanistan:
After the 15 August 2021 fall of Kabul to Taliban forces, violence towards civilians has persisted in Afghanistan. As a result of the heightened risk of violence targeting civilians under Taliban rule, Afghanistan is included in ACLED’s 10 conflicts to worry about in 2022, in part due to the particularly high level of violence targeting women in politics, specifically women who aim to prevent the erosion of the rights of women and girls. Amid ongoing concerns over civilian targeting and an increasingly repressive context for reporting, acquiring information on risks has been severely impacted. Organizations tracking political violence and protests have thus had to adapt to the changing environment to adequately capture trends on the ground.
This report reviews the challenges of sourcing data in Afghanistan in the seven months after the Taliban takeover. It highlights the contribution of Afghan Peace Watch (APW) data to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) dataset, examining how key trends concerning violence targeting civilians, particularly political violence targeting women, are better captured as a result of adaptations made to reporting and sourcing data. The report includes an overview of the clashes that have occurred between Taliban and anti-Taliban forces, as well as between the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS), since the Taliban came to power. Data on Taliban infighting is also reviewed to understand the degree of cohesion in the group as they move from insurgents to the de facto government.
The Pakistani military has cast some shade on former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s claim that the no-confidence vote that removed him from office was orchestrated by the United States. Khan’s main piece of evidence, such as it is, appears to be a statement from Pakistan’s National Security Committee earlier this month complaining about “non-diplomatic language” in a foreign cable about the no confidence vote. The cable almost certainly came from the US, but the Pakistani military’s chief spokesperson, Major General Babar Iftikhar, denied to reporters that the NSC statement was meant to suggest a US-orchestrated conspiracy against Khan.
Survivors of an alleged massacre of hundreds of civilians in central Mali’s Mopti region last month are reportedly accusing the Malian military and “white mercenaries” of carrying out the attack. These accounts are going to support allegations by international human rights organizations that Russian Wagner Group operatives were involved in the incident. The replacement of French and European counter-terrorism forces with Russian mercenaries seems to be coinciding with an increase in violence, and in indiscriminate violence, in Mali’s campaign against Islamist militancy.
Most of Somalia’s new parliament took office on Thursday, their months-long indirect election process having concluded on March 31. The new legislature will now be charged with choosing a president, a vote that’s currently unscheduled but is supposed to be undertaken no later than May 17 lest the International Monetary Fund take steps to cut its financial support to Mogadishu.
In news from Russia:
Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president and current deputy chair of the Russian Security Council, warned on Thursday that should Finland and/or Sweden join NATO, as they’re now considering, the Russian military would have no choice but to strengthen its military presence in the Baltic region. Medvedev’s main threat is the possibility of Russian nuclear weapons being stationed in the region, but the problem with that threat is that there’s evidence Russia already has nuclear weapons stationed in the Baltic region, specifically in the Kaliningrad exclave. Lithuanian Defense Minister Arvydas Anušauskas reiterated that claim on Thursday.
It looks like one of the sanctions shoes that’s yet to drop may be dropping relatively soon. The New York Times reported Thursday that European officials are “drafting plans” for a continental embargo on Russian oil. Like the comparatively less disruptive coal embargo they announced earlier this month, this ban on Russian oil would be phased in over a period of months in order to give European governments—chiefly Germany’s—time to find alternative providers. Any announcement of an embargo would come after the French presidential runoff on April 24, to avoid disrupting that election. European oil and natural gas purchases are sending considerable revenue Russia’s way despite all the sanctions Western governments have imposed on Moscow to date. There’s no indication that German opposition to a gas embargo has softened, and even if officials do draw up an oil embargo there’s a possibility that one or more EU members will object to imposing it.
The Indonesian Finance Ministry said on Thursday that Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov will virtually attend a G20 ministerial meeting to be held in Washington next week to discuss the economic fallout of the Ukraine war. This is noteworthy because the United States and a number of European states have been insisting that Russia be kicked out of the G20 and have threatened to boycott meetings if that didn’t come to pass. As this year’s G20 chair, Indonesia has some responsibility for organizing the Gang’s meetings, but it probably does not have the authority to unilaterally disinvite members.
The Biden administration on Thursday blacklisted seven Belarusian-operated 737 aircraft for allegedly violating US export controls on materials going to Russia. They join 146 Russian-operated airplanes on that blacklist. Their presence on the list could make it very difficult, if not impossible, for those aircraft to operate internationally.
And in Ukraine:
The Russian Defense Ministry is acknowledging that the flagship of its Black Sea fleet, the missile cruiser Moskva, has sunk following some sort of catastrophic incident that took place on Wednesday. The vessel suffered an explosion and subsequent fire, the cause of which is being disputed. The Ukrainian military says it struck the Moskva with at least one anti-ship missile, while Russian officials have been claiming that ammunition on board the ship blew up for some unspecified reason. These are not mutually exclusive scenarios, to be clear. There were reports that the ship had sunk on Wednesday, but those were retracted. Instead it seems the ship survived long enough to be towed toward the Crimean port of Sevastopol but sunk at some point during that journey. The Russians say the ship’s personnel were safely evacuated. The loss of a single ship is not especially damaging to the Russian war effort but the loss of a ship as prominent as the Moskva, which among other things was involved in the “go fuck yourself” incident earlier in this conflict, is a fairly significant symbolic blow for the Russian military to absorb.
There were unconfirmed reports of Russian air and/or missile strikes in multiple Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv, shortly after word broke of the Moskva’s sinking. There’s no word on the extent of these strikes but the Russians have been relatively quiet in terms of attacks on cities outside of eastern Ukraine since they began redeploying forces to support their new focus on the Donbas.
One open question over the past several days has been whether Ukrainian forces are attacking targets over the border in Russia. There have been several relatively minor incidents—some gunfire here, mortar fire there, and so on—the most serious of which was an alleged Ukrainian attack on a fuel depot near Belgorod earlier this month. On Thursday, Russian officials accused the Ukrainian military of undertaking a helicopter attack on a civilian area in Russia’s Bryansk oblast, wounding at least seven people, and announced the evacuation of two border villages due to alleged Ukrainian shelling. Ukrainian officials denied at least the helicopter incident.
In terms of the situation on the ground there’s not much new to report from what I can tell. France 24 has unearthed video that appears to show Russian forces moving toward the Donbas, but since the Russians have already made it pretty clear that they’re focusing on the Donbas I don’t think this counts as breaking news exactly.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday unveiled a scheme to relocate asylum seekers to Rwanda, in remarks so incoherent that he suggested both that Rwanda is a great place for migrants and that the threat of being sent to Rwanda will deter migrants from attempting to enter the UK. Rwanda will be getting a hefty payment out of the deal, while Johnson can likely expect legal challenges over a plan to forcibly ship people to a country whose human rights record is questionable enough that BoJo’s own government was criticizing it just a few months ago. I think Al Jazeera’s report hits all the important bases:
The new Chilean constitution is still being written, but the assembly charged with writing it did make a pretty substantial change to the makeup of the Chilean government on Wednesday, voting to dissolve the country’s Senate in favor of a new “Council of Regions.” However, while they were able to agree on the formation of the new legislative body, assembly members were unable to agree on what it should do and will continue working on that bit. The assembly has been struggling to make progress and only has until May 17 to produce a new national charter lest the current Pinochet-era constitution remain in place.
Finally, with the Western-led push to isolate and punish Russia clearly faltering in the developing world, the Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi argues that Western leaders have nobody to blame but their own hypocritical selves:
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has been nothing short of brilliant in his outreach to Western audiences. The overwhelming Western support for Ukraine is due not only to the brutality of Russia’s illegal invasion, but also to the astuteness and charisma with which Zelenskyy has made Ukraine’s case for aid.
But as effective as Zelenskyy has been in drumming up Western support, Ukraine’s message has been far less compelling to audiences in the Global South, where many countries have declined to join Western campaigns to sanction Russia’s economy and isolate it diplomatically. This was vividly clear at the Doha Forum last month in Qatar, where Zelenskyy and Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova were given a big platform. A powerful communicator in her own right, Dzhaparova — a Muslim Tatar from Crimea — played on themes favored by Western leaders: This war is ultimately not about Ukraine but about the survival of the “international rules-based order.” President Joe Biden and European leaders have repeatedly framed the conflict in these terms, as well.
But therein lies the disconnect with much of the Global South. In conversations with diplomats and analysts from across Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, it was evident to me that these countries largely sympathize with the plight of the Ukrainian people and view Russia as the aggressor. But Western demands that they make costly sacrifices by cutting off economic ties with Russia to uphold a “rules-based order” have begotten an allergic reaction. That order hasn’t been rules-based; instead, it has allowed the U.S. to violate international law with impunity. The West’s messaging on Ukraine has taken its tone-deafness to a whole new level, and it is unlikely to win over the support of countries that have often experienced the worse sides of the international order.