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World roundup: April 20-21 2022
Stories from East Timor, Nigeria, Ukraine, and more
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THESE DAYS 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 21, 43 BC: In the followup to April 14’s Battle of Forum Gallorum, Mark Antony’s army is again defeated by a consular army led by Aulus Hirtius with the support of Octavia at the Battle of Mutina. Antony decided after this defeat to lift his siege of Mutina, which he’d ostensibly undertaken in order to kill its governor, Decimus Brutus, who was one of Julius Caesar’s assassins. He set about amassing a huge army of Caesarian loyalists. Decimus Brutus wound up fleeing east to join Brutus and Cassius, but was captured and killed by allies of Antony on the way. Conveniently for Octavian, Hirtius died during the battle, and when his fellow consul Pansa died the following day of wounds suffered at Forum Gallorum, Octavian was left to claim credit for the victory uncontested. The newly empowered Octavian soon turned on the Senate and later allied with Antony under the framework of the Second Triumvirate.
April 21, 1526: The First Battle of Panipat
April 21, 1802 (probably): A Saudi-Wahhabi army/mob sacks the city of Karbala.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Al-Monitor’s Khaled al-Khateb reports that Islamic State attacks against Syrian military and economic targets have increased in frequency this month, perhaps in retaliation for the death of former IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi during a US special forces raid in Idlib province back in February. This heightened activity is presumably also intended as a show of force on behalf of new IS boss Abu’l-Hasan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. IS has also been active in Israel of late, a first in its history, and this week called on supporters to use the distraction of the war in Ukraine to undertake attacks both in Israel and across Europe.
Yemen’s new presidential council officially took office on Wednesday with chair Rashad al-Alimi expressing a commitment to peace talks with the Houthi/Ansar Allah rebels in northern Yemen and insisting that the council is ready to continue the war effort if those peace talks don’t happen, or don’t go anywhere. This marks the de facto (and possibly de jure, I’m still not clear on that) end of Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi’s presidency, so kudos to him for a job well done? No, not really. A job done? That still doesn’t seem right. Let’s just say he’ll be missed. On second thought, probably not that either.
On a somewhat positive note, Yemenia Airways announced on Wednesday that it will resume regular flights between Sanaa and Amman starting Sunday. Commercial flights into and out of Sanaa have been grounded for several years by a Saudi air blockade, but under the terms of the two-month ceasefire the United Nations has brokered Riyadh agreed to a partial lifting of that blockade.
A bombing targeting a bus carrying prison guards in Turkey’s Bursa province killed at least one person and wounded at least three more on Wednesday. There’s been no indication as to responsibility as far as I know, but Kurdish militants have carried out attacks in Bursa in the past.
Elsewhere, the Turkish Foreign Ministry summoned Iraq’s chargé d’affaires in Ankara on Thursday to offer a justification for its latest military operation against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan suggested on Wednesday that the Iraqi government supports and is cooperating with the Turks in their offensive, only to have the Iraqi Foreign Ministry deny that claim. The Turks insist their activities in northern Iraq are justified in the name of self-defense, since Baghdad can’t or won’t do anything about the PKK’s presence itself. The reality here is most likely somewhere in the middle. I suspect the Iraqis are fine with Turkey going after the PKK, but they get nervous when these operations kill Iraqi Kurdish civilians, as they frequently seem to do. And for obvious reasons Baghdad can’t openly condone another country violating its sovereignty, even if there’s not much Iraqi officials can do about it.
The Israeli military and Hamas/Islamic Jihad are continuing to careen toward another war after another exchange of fire late Wednesday and overnight. Somebody fired a rocket out of Gaza late Wednesday that struck near a home in southern Israel and prompted the Israeli military to conduct retaliatory strikes against what it said was a Hamas rocket factory early Thursday morning. According to Israeli authorities another four rockets were fired out of Gaza after those Israeli strikes. I haven’t seen any reports of a response to that second round of rocket fire but one is presumably forthcoming. Israeli police are continuing to raid the al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard in eastern Jerusalem, meanwhile, bringing tear gas and stun grenades to the party on Thursday. There are no reports of casualties in the Gaza exchanges, while at least one Palestinian was wounded in the al-Aqsa incident.
The Iranian Intelligence Ministry said on Wednesday that it had arrested three “Mossad agents” in Iran’s restive Sistan and Baluchistan province. It’s unclear whether these are Iranians allegedly working for Mossad or alleged Mossad agents who entered Iran from elsewhere.
Islamic State claimed responsibility for two bombings in northern Afghan cities on Thursday, one targeting a Shiʿa mosque in Mazar-i-Sharif in which at least 11 people were killed and 32 others wounded, and another in Kunduz city that left at least 11 people killed and wounded. There’s a report of a third bombing in western Kabul that wounded at least two people. That attack took place in a predominantly Hazara/Shiʿa part of the capital and was likely an IS production also.
A group of around 528 Rohingya refugees escaped a detention camp in northern Malaysia early Wednesday, six of whom were subsequently killed while attempting to cross a busy highway. Malaysian authorities said they’d arrested another 362 escapees by 10 AM Wednesday, and I’m unsure as to the fate of the rest. The breakout was preceded by an uprising in the detention facility, the causes of which are unclear but presumably have something to do with the systematic mistreatment of Rohingya refugees and perhaps the inadequacy of that facility for housing such a large number of people.
As expected, former East Timorese president and Nobel laureate José Ramos-Horta won Tuesday’s runoff against incumbent President Francisco Guterres by a wide margin, taking a bit over 62 percent of the vote. Turnout was a robust 75 percent. Ramos-Horta will take office on May 20 and has suggested that he may dissolve parliament shortly thereafter.
The Philippines’ Commission on Elections on Wednesday dismissed the last petition against Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s participation in the country’s May 9 presidential election, clearing the way for what polling suggests could be a landslide victory for the son of ex-dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Most polling gives Marcos Jr. a lead of 30 or more points over sitting vice president Leni Robredo, with other candidates in the single digits.
Current President Rodrigo Duterte’s government said Wednesday that it’s halting oil and gas exploration projects in the South China Sea in hopes of striking a deal for a joint exploration project with China. Philippine and Chinese claims famously overlap in the SCS, which has been a major complication for Duterte’s efforts to strengthen ties between Manila and Beijing. He’d lifted a previous suspension on exploration projects in 2020 in hopes of pressuring China into making a deal, but clearly that didn’t work so now the hope is that appeasing Chinese interests will lead to a deal. If the two countries do manage to agree on terms they will likely be skewed in China’s favor given the relative power imbalance, and that could have the effect of legitimizing Chinese maritime claims.
Fathi Bashagha, the newest of Libya’s two prime ministers, reportedly held his first cabinet meeting on Thursday albeit not—as I’m sure he would have preferred—in Tripoli. Bashagha instead convened the Gang in Sabha, in southern Libya, presumably in deference to the fact that militias loyal to fellow PM Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh are still in control of Tripoli and would likely resist his efforts to enter the Libyan capital. As ever, two prime ministers remains one more than is recommended for stability.
Ivorian Prime Minister Patrick Achi returned to his job on Thursday after having been asked to resign along with the rest of his cabinet by President Alassane Ouattara earlier this month. Ouattara brought Achi back at the head of a new cabinet that doesn’t look all that different from the old one except insofar as it’s smaller, with only 32 ministers instead of the previous 41. There were a couple of ministerial changes apart from the consolidation but nothing that suggests a major shift in policy.
One Russian mercenary was killed on Tuesday when the vehicle he was in struck a roadside bomb in central Mali’s Mopti region. This is the first Russian merc-uh, I mean “military adviser” known to have been killed in Mali since the Wagner Group began operating there last December or thereabouts. Mopti is the same region where the Malian military, with Wagner support personnel, allegedly massacred hundreds of civilians in an incident that took place in late March. The United Nations claimed on Wednesday that Malian authorities are blocking its investigators from visiting the site of the alleged massacre.
Islamic State West Africa Province fighters have carried out, or probably carried out, two attacks in northeastern Nigeria over the past couple of days in which at least 17 people were killed. ISWAP has claimed responsibility for a bombing at a bar in Taraba state on Tuesday that killed at least six people and wounded 19 others. Taraba is somewhat south of the group’s typical range so this is a potentially worrisome development. On Wednesday night, militants believed to be ISWAP fighters stormed a town in Yobe state where they killed nine people at a bar and another two people on the campus of a technical college.
Foreign Exchanges columnist Alex Thurston has a new piece up over at his Sahel Blog highlighting five key potential candidates ahead of Nigeria’s presidential election next year. The country’s two main parties, the All Progressives Congress of President Muhammadu Buhari and the opposition People’s Democratic Party, will hold their primaries in May. Buhari is term limited so the race at this point is wide open and the outcome will obviously have substantial importance for Nigeria’s future and for the rest of the region. Alex also has a piece over at Responsible Statecraft questioning the logic behind the sale of 12 new US-made attack helicopters to Nigeria ostensibly for counter-insurgency purposes.
In news from Russia:
The Russian military tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile on Wednesday in a message so unsubtle that if there are people living on Neptune I’m pretty sure they got the hint. It’s unclear what makes this new missile new, so to speak, though Vladimir Putin did declare that it “is capable of overcoming all modern means of anti-missile defense” and “has no analogues in the world.” So it’s got that going for it, at least. The Russians apparently notified the United States ahead of time so nobody was caught by surprise, thankfully. Surprise ICBM launches are generally inadvisable, North Korea notwithstanding.
The Biden administration on Wednesday blacklisted Russia’s Transkapitalbank as well as a network of companies tied to an oligarch named Konstantin Malofeyev, all over alleged efforts to evade US sanctions. In addition, the State Department imposed visa bans on some 650 individuals from Russia, Belarus, and separatist regions of Ukraine. On Thursday, the administration announced that it’s banning Russian flagged, owned, and/or operated ships from US ports, which is a step Canada and several European countries have already taken. Given that most Russian ship traffic to the US is related to oil, and the administration has already imposed an embargo on Russian oil, it’s unlikely this measure will have much impact. The UK on Thursday blacklisted 26 individuals and entities linked to the Russian military, including a number of generals. And the European Union has blacklisted Wagner Group founder Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin.
On the Russian side, the Kremlin announced on Thursday that it’s blacklisting 61 Canadian individuals, including journalists and commentators, and that it’s barring entry to another 28 US government officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris.
Russia’s presence at a G20 summit in Washington on Wednesday generated a bit of controversy, as several delegates from Canada, the UK, and the US walked out of the proceedings when the Russian delegation, some members of which attended virtually, began speaking. A Ukrainian delegation, attending the summit because the Ukraine war was on the agenda, also walked out.
The Russian Foreign Ministry has closed the Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian consulates in St. Petersburg as well as the Latvian consulate and an Estonian office in Pskov. These moves come in retalition for the closure of two Russian consulates in both Estonia and Latvia earlier this month, as well as the Lithuanian government’s decision to expel its Russian ambassador.
And in Ukraine:
The Russian advance in the Donbas appears to be making steady progress. An aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Olena Symonenko, said Thursday that Russian forces seized 42 villages in Donetsk oblast that day, while the governor of Luhansk oblast, Serhiy Haidai, said late Wednesday that Russian forces are now in control of roughly 80 percent of that province—compared with about 40 percent before the Russian invasion began.
In Mariupol, Putin apparently decided on Thursday not to launch a final, full-scale attack on the Azovstal steel plant, where hundreds of Ukrainian defenders and some unknown number of civilians remain holed up, and instead to declare the city captured (uh, I mean “liberated”) and leave the plant surrounded. Presumably the goal is to starve those still inside the plant into submission or death, whichever comes first. There have been some halting efforts to evacuate the civilians and/or wounded fighters out of Azovstal but they’ve proceeded only haphazardly—for example, three buses full of evacuees reached Zaporizhzhia, which is better than nothing but really a drop in the bucket compared with the number of people trapped in the plant.
Joe Biden announced that he’s sending another $800 million in military aid to Ukraine, and yes that sound you just heard was the staff at General Dynamics throwing a kegger to celebrate. With the changing nature of the conflict from what appeared to be a broad battle for control of Ukraine to a narrowly focused conventional war over the Donbas, the focus of foreign military assistance has shifted from asymmetric weapons (anti-tank, portable anti-aircraft) to more conventional armaments like tanks, helicopters, and heavy artillery. Western governments have also taken to training Ukrainian soldiers on new weapons platforms, with a small number of Ukrainians currently in the UK for armored vehicle training and a small number in an unspecified location being trained on howitzers by the US military.
Depending on your political leanings and/or appreciation for unforeseen consequences, you may be pleased to learn (from reliably Pentagon-friendly CNN, no less) that the US military really has no idea what will happen to all the weapons currently flooding into Ukraine. While this certainly isn’t the most important thing at the moment and there’s an argument to be made that the reward is worth the risk, it seems a little weird—especially coming right after the end of the Afghanistan war—that more isn’t being made of this issue.
Sticking with weapons, the Pentagon corrected itself on Wednesday, saying that Ukraine has received a shipment of MiG-29 parts but no functioning aircraft, as it had declared the previous day. Even so, the parts will enable the Ukrainians to maintain their limited supply of fighters and potentially get some damaged aircraft back into the sky.
US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen announced Thursday that the Biden administration will send $500 million in direct cash assistance to Ukraine, on top of the $500 million Biden pledged last month. This aid is meant to keep the Ukrainian government’s proverbial lights on and is well short of the $7 billion per month that Zelensky says he needs to maintain the Ukrainian economy amid the war. The World Bank estimates that the war has done $60 billion in physical damage to Ukraine thus far, and the total economic damage could be well in excess of that. These figures will likely heighten calls for frozen Russian reserves and other assets to be put toward Ukrainian reconstruction.
The International Organization for Migration now estimates that more than 5 million Ukrainians have fled the country since the invasion began, and that another 7.1 million have been displaced within Ukraine.
A new poll from OpinionWay/Kea Partners has French President Emmanuel Macron at 56 percent support heading into Sunday’s runoff against Marine Le Pen. Macron’s polling lead has increased a bit since the April 10 first round and it now seems likely he’ll win reelection. There appears to be a significant amount of disinterest in this matchup, with turnout likely to be low for a French election and with a fairly small number of people having tuned in to Wednesday’s debate between the candidates—a debate that Macron seems to have “won” based on snap polling.
At least six Colombian soldiers were reportedly killed in a bombing in Antioquia department late Tuesday night. Colombian authorities are blaming the Gulf Clan drug cartel for the attack. Five soldiers were wounded in the incident and one was missing at least as of Wednesday.
Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was finally extradited to the US on Thursday to stand trial on drug trafficking and weapons charges. US authorities have been pursuing Hernández’s extradition virtually since the end of his term earlier this year. He surrendered to Honduran authorities in mid February and had been fighting the extradition request in court, but the Honduran Supreme Court ruled in favor of sending him to the US last month.
Finally, Forever Wars’ Spencer Ackerman looks to Turkish history for some lessons about America’s future:
IN FEBRUARY 1972, a young, wealthy İstanbullu was at an impasse over what to do with his life. His passion for painting had vanished along with a first love whose portrait he used to paint. His mother, fearful for his prospects as an artist, pleaded with him to get an architecture degree. To clear his mind, he boarded a ferry and crossed the Golden Horn, the better to connect with his 1,600-year-old city.
Thirty years later, he remembered that crossing:
Through the ship's trembling windows I could see the ruined old wooden houses; the old Greek neighborhood of Fener, still half abandoned due to relentless state oppression; and among these ruined buildings, looking more mysterious than ever under the dark clouds—Topkapi Palace, Suleymaniye Mosque, and the silhouette of Istanbul's hills, mosques and churches. Here amid the old stones and the wooden houses, history made peace with its ruins; ruins nourished life and gave new life to history.
That young painter became Orhan Pamuk, contemporary Turkiye's most celebrated novelist. (I'm not remotely familiar enough with the Turkish literary scene to say he's the greatest, but he deserves the celebration.) His recollection appears in his 2004 book Istanbul: Memories And The City.
As a New Yorker, I can't stop thinking about Pamuk's line about the regenerative power of a city's history. For hundreds of not-always-consecutive years, across two empires, Istanbul was something like the center of the world. Pamuk, a native, grew up long after the various golden ages of Istanbul had passed, but not long enough to have eroded the memory of what the city had been. As Americans in an era when America's global supremacy is fading, it's worth considering what our Istanbullu future holds.