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World roundup: April 20 2023
Stories from Yemen, Pakistan, Sudan, and elsewhere
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Eid Mubarak to those who are celebrating!
TODAY IN HISTORY
April 20, 1752: A small battle south of the city (village at the time) of Shwebo marks the start of the Konbaung–Hanthawaddy War, which helped consolidate the modern nation of Myanmar. An “army” (of around 40 men) belonging to the nascent Konbaung dynasty, under its founder Alaungpaya, defeated a small military unit detached by the southern Hanthawaddy kingdom to pacify the region. The war ended with a Konbaung victory that reunited upper and lower (northern and southern) Myanmar (Burma if you prefer) under a Bamar ruling family and marked the final time that the Mon people of southern Myanmar tried to establish an independent state.
April 20, 1792: The French Assembly declares war against the Habsburg monarchy, kicking off nearly ten years of conflict sometimes called the “French Revolutionary Wars.” This conflict is perhaps more properly broken into the wars of the First Coalition (1792-1797) and Second Coalition (1798-1802), referring to the international alliances arrayed against the French First Republic. The Republic emerged victorious from both wars. They’re distinguished from the five subsequent coalition wars (1805-1815) thanks to Napoleon, who brought the Republic to an end with his coronation as emperor in 1804.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Climate models are reportedly predicting the return of El Niño after a three year La Niña interlude. Which means that 2023 is likely to set some new record high temperatures around the world (it already is, in fact). The phenomenon helped to make 2016 the hottest year on record, but with seven more years’ worth of carbon in the atmosphere it’s a reasonable bet that 2023 could match or exceed that standard. A “strong” El Niño may develop by the end of this year, which would set 2024 up to break records yet again.
On a completely unrelated note, a new study published in the journal Earth System Science Data finds that the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are currently losing ice at three times the annual rate they were losing it 30 years ago. From 1992-1996 those sheets lost some 116 billion tons of ice, whereas between 2017 and 2020 they lost some 410 billion tons. Most of that increase came from Greenland. Melting has actually slowed a bit in Antarctica but that does not appear to be a durable trend. Needless to say this is not a sustainable level of melting.
The United Nations has reached agreement with the Dutch firm SMIT Salvage, a subsidiary of the firm Boskalis, to retrieve the estimated 1.1 million barrels of oil currently sitting in the hold of the decaying tanker FSO Safer off of Yemen’s Red Sea coast. This is a major step forward in the operation to recover that oil and avert a potential environmental catastrophe. The Safer, as we’ve noted in this newsletter previously, has been stranded in the Red Sea since the start of Yemen’s civil war and has for several years now been considered a critical risk due to the likelihood of a hull breach. This news follows last month’s announcement that the UN had acquired a new tanker large enough to hold the oil once it’s pumped off of the Safer. The UN says it still needs another $29 million to pay for the salvage operation, which it’s hoping to receive via a donor conference on May 4. For no particular reason, I feel like noting that next year’s Pentagon budget is going to be at least $842 billion.
Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen headed to Turkmenistan on Thursday to open Israel’s brand new embassy in Ashgabat. Although Israel already has an ambassador to Turkmenistan, the establishment of a full fledged embassy is a significant development at least insofar as Turkmenistan borders Iran and thus has strategic value for the Israeli government.
The Iranian Navy is claiming that it forced a US submarine to surface after it maneuvered into Iranian waters in the Strait of Hormuz on Thursday. The US Fifth Fleet called that claim “disinformation” and insisted that no US sub has “transited the Strait of Hormuz today or recently.” The cruise missile sub USS Florida is known to be attached to the Fifth Fleet at present.
The Pakistani government says it’s decided to purchase heavily discounted Russian crude oil, with an initial shipment scheduled to arrive next month and more likely to come after that. The deal provides economically strapped Pakistan with a source of badly needed cheap fuel, and Moscow with another badly needed customer. It’s unclear how steep the discount is, so it’s unknown whether the deal violates the $60/barrel price cap that Western governments have imposed on Russian oil sales (but that they have yet to actually enforce as far as I can tell). It does seem clear that Russia has undercut Saudi Arabia, Pakistan’s current primary oil supplier, which is an interesting potential twist on this transaction. Something that might also be worth watching is the currency Pakistan uses to pay for this Russian product. US dollars are certainly out, since Pakistan has few of them and Russia can’t use them anyway.
The Indian military says that Kashmiri militants ambushed a unit of soldiers near the Line of Control with Pakistan on Thursday, killing five of them. A sixth soldier was wounded, apparently severely.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen promoted his son and army commander Hun Manet to four-star general on Thursday, so that’s nice. Always cool to see a dad encouraging his son like this. Well, technically it was Cambodian King Norodom Sihamoni who made the promotion but his imprimatur was just a formality. The 71 year old Hun Sen has been hinting at retirement and hasn’t made much secret about his intention that Hun Manet to succeed him. The promotion gilds Hun Manet’s resume ahead of that eventual succession.
The Communist Party of the Philippines on Thursday announced, and Philippine officials have apparently confirmed, that CPP leaders Benito and Wilma Tiamzon were killed by the Philippine military in August. The party is claiming that the Tiamzons, who allegedly led the CPP’s New People’s Army militant wing, were arrested along with eight other people in Samar province and that Philippine authorities subsequently tortured and executed them. A Philippine army spokesperson claimed instead that the ten people in question engaged in a “firefight” with Philippine forces at sea off the Samar coast and were killed in that engagement.
From what I can piece together, the ceasefire that was supposed to go into effect in Sudan at 6 PM Wednesday, local time, did eventually take partial hold (albeit not on time). What turned out to be more of an extended lull than a full fledged cessation of hostilities does appear to have given civilians in Sudan’s main conflict zone—Khartoum and its sister cities, Bahri and Omdurman—a chance to flee the worst of the fighting. Heavy fighting has since resumed with seemingly no end in sight, as both military commander Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and “Rapid Support Forces” boss Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo have ruled out negotiating with one another. Multiple countries and the UN have called for a three day Eid ceasefire but while both Burhan and Dagalo have said they’d be receptive to that idea I see no indication that either one is actually planning on doing it.
The latest casualty count, from the World Health Organization, puts the death toll at 330 with more than 3200 wounded. Getting a handle on the contours of the fighting has been challenging, but from what I’ve been able to glean the RSF’s initial attacks on Saturday were primarily directed at Sudanese airbases in an attempt to neutralize the military’s biggest edge. Those attacks did not knock the military’s air power out of the fight so the RSF seems to be concentrating its fight in urban areas (hence the heavy fighting in Khartoum and its environs) and in Darfur, where the paramilitary unit can rely on support from the Janjaweed tribal network whence it was formed during the Darfur conflict.
The RSF doesn’t have the military’s capabilities but it does have substantial manpower and the ability to mobilize more fighters in Darfur. Burhan and Dagalo each have their own international support networks, which contributed to their eventual falling out, but it remains to be seen if any of those foreign backers are going to intervene directly/overtly in the conflict. The US has deployed additional military forces to Djibouti, but ostensibly they’re preparing for a possible operation to evacuate US diplomatic personnel from Sudan, not to intervene in the fighting.
A Tunisian court on Thursday ordered Ennahda party leader Rached Ghannouchi jailed until he faces trial on incitement charges. Ghannouchi was arrested earlier this week after suggesting—seemingly more factually than aspirationally—that Tunisia is heading toward civil war thanks to President Kais Saied’s monopolization of power and systematic imprisonment of political opponents. Saied’s control over every lever of authority meant that this ruling was likely never in doubt.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The Allied Democratic Forces militia is believed to have been responsible for an attack on a village in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province on Wednesday that left at least 20 people dead. A number of people are still missing, and while at least some of them were abducted the potential is there for the death toll to rise.
A large explosion in the Russian city of Belgorod on Thursday was caused, according to the TASS news agency, by “an accidental discharge of aviation ammunition” from a Russian Sukhoi Su-34 military jet. Details beyond that are unknown. At least two people were injured in the blast. Belgorod is located close enough to Ukraine that the blast caused some speculation about a Ukrainian attack.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg visited Ukraine on Thursday, where he and President Volodymyr Zelensky amazingly still agreed that Ukraine should join NATO in spite of everything that’s happened over the past year and a half. I guess it’s important to stick to your principles. In fairness, Zelensky seemed more interested in getting Stoltenberg’s help in convincing NATO members to send long-range artillery ammunition to Ukraine, so maybe he led with NATO membership as a sort of opening negotiating gambit. The US and other Western nations have been reluctant to give Ukraine their longest-range ammo for fear that the Ukrainians will use it to strike targets well inside Russia and thereby risk escalating the war.
The Washington Post reported on Thursday that a document in the Discord Leak reveals a Ukrainian plan to organize attacks on Russian military personnel in Syria, apparently using Syrian Democratic Forces proxies. I have no problem believing that this is something the Ukrainians considered but I can’t imagine they’d have the capability to pull it off, nor can I fathom why the SDF would be interested in assisting when their fight is with Turkey, not Russia. An SDF spokesperson denied that the group considered participating in such an operation.
The Hungarian government on Thursday extended its ban on Ukrainian grain imports to cover other goods, including honey and “certain meat products.” Budapest is trying to pressure the European Union into expanding its emergency aid program for farmers who have seen prices for agricultural goods plummet due to the influx of Ukrainian exports onto the European market. So far the EU is offering assistance for producers of four products, but several Eastern European states in addition to Hungary are demanding that the list be broadened.
Spain’s ruling Socialist Party is losing some of its juice heading into a general election later this year (no later than December 10), according to a new survey from Spain’s Center for Sociological Studies. The poll puts the Socialists at 30.4 percent support, down from 32.7 percent last month, with the conservative People’s Party at 26.1 percent. This is actually a fairly good poll for the Socialists, whose support has fallen behind the PP in several other recent surveys. Particulars aside, most polling suggests a fairly straightforward path to a Socialist-led coalition government including two further left parties, current coalition partner Podemos and the new Sumar party.
Chilean President Gabriel Boric announced on Thursday that he intends to nationalize Chile’s lithium sector and will form a state-owned company for that purpose. Chile has one of the world’s largest known reserves of lithium, which is crucial for manufacturing batteries, and is currently the second-largest producer of the metal after Australia. Boric may have a difficult time getting this idea past the Chilean Congress, where he’s had mixed success in general since taking office.
The Biden administration on Thursday repatriated an Algerian national who’d been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay without charges since 2002. He’s now in the custody of Algerian authorities. This leaves 30 people still detained at Guantanamo, 16 of whom are considered eligible for transfer. The administration has nodded in the direction of closing the notorious facility but hasn’t made it a priority.
Finally, Jacobin’s Luke Savage highlights a new Institute for Policy Studies report that attempts to put the US military budget into perspective:
The Pentagon’s bloated and ever-expanding budget undermines American democracy, not only because it never receives the same scrutiny as other government spending, but because it ultimately funnels so much money away from essential social and public goods — as a new report released by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) makes vividly clear. Published annually on Tax Day in collaboration with the National Priorities Project, the institute’s analysis examines Americans’ income taxes in relation to military and security spending to show just how much of the average person’s tax bill is going to the likes of cluster bombs rather than hospitals or schools. Its findings are staggering.
This year, the average American taxpayer paid $1,087 just for Pentagon contractors alone — a sum representing twenty-one days of work for the average person and four times what they contributed to K-12 education ($270). They also paid approximately $74 for the maintenance of nuclear weapons, while just $43 went to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). An average taxpayer gave $298 to the five largest military contractors, while only $19 went to programs concerned with mental health and substance abuse. Lockheed Martin, incidentally a major air polluter, received $106 from the average person’s income tax contribution, while a mere $6 went to renewable energy.
The institute has long tracked the wider growth of spending related to domestic policing and securitization. Here the numbers are no less striking: $20 per taxpayer for federal prisons and just $11 for anti-homelessness programs; $70 for deportations and border control versus just $19 for refugee assistance, and on and on it goes.
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