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World roundup: April 25 2023
Stories from Turkey, South Korea, Sudan, and elsewhere
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I want to begin tonight’s newsletter on a somber note, to mark the unexpected passing of Cornell Fleischer, Kanuni Süleyman Professor of Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies at the University of Chicago. Professor Fleischer was one of my mentors in my graduate school days, and in addition to being a wonderful teacher and phenomenal scholar he was unfailingly generous with his time and kind to me and all of his students. Anything I have ever written or spoken about Ottoman history, here or elsewhere, was made possible by Professor Fleischer. This is a profound loss to the University of Chicago and the wider academic community and one that I am feeling personally today. May he rest in peace.
TODAY IN HISTORY
April 25, 775: The Battle of Bagrevand
April 25, 1846: A small detachment of US soldiers is resoundingly defeated by a much larger Mexican contingent in what became known as the Thornton Affair, after the US commander Captain Seth Thornton. This was the first military engagement of the Mexican-American War, which ended in February 1848 with Mexico’s surrender, including its recognition of the US annexation of Texas and the cession of the territory that includes the modern states of California, Nevada, and Utah as well as parts of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona.
April 25, 1898: The US Congress declares war on Spain retroactive to the imposition of a US naval blockade on Cuba on April 21. This marks the start of the Spanish-American War, which ended in August with Spain’s surrender and the cession of Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico to the US along with a renunciation of Spain’s claim on Cuba.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A new survey from the Turkish pollster AREA gives challenger Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu a slim 1.4 percentage point lead over incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in a hypothetical presidential runoff. That’s probably too close for comfort for either candidate but it is in line with a trend that’s seen polling between the two men tighten significantly since Kılıçdaroğlu was named as the joint opposition candidate last month. Where a few weeks ago much of the polling put Kılıçdaroğlu in striking distance of a first round outright victory, more recent surveys suggest a runoff is likely and a couple even have Erdoğan winning in the first round. Polling of their runoff matchup has similarly shifted in Erdoğan’s direction.
Any polling should be taken with a grain of salt but Kılıçdaroğlu does carry some baggage into this race—his age, his identification with an older guard within his Republican People’s Party (CHP), the fact that he’s Alevi. Couple that with the fact that Erdoğan will use every lever of state and media power at his disposal to ensure that the campaign itself is lopsided in his favor (including, apparently, arresting dozens of Kurdish activists) and the challenge for the opposition is immense.
A group of Israeli runners was fired upon near the West Bank settlement of Ofra on Tuesday. One of the runners was “moderately wounded,” according to Al-Monitor. To my knowledge here’s been no claim of responsibility as yet.
The Iranian government on Tuesday blacklisted several European Union and United Kingdom officials, in retaliation for sanctions those entities imposed on a number of Iranians earlier this week. Sanctions imposed by the Iranian government are almost by definition symbolic, and the symbolism can work to the political benefit of the targets—“look at how I’ve been blacklisted by the Evildoers in Iran,” that sort of thing.
Apparently, and I assume this is true because how could you make it up, the new Azerbaijani checkpoint that’s now blocking the Lachin Corridor between Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh sits right next door to a facility occupied by Russian peacekeeping forces whose job, among other things, is to ensure that the corridor remains open. In fairness, the Russians were already allowing a group of Azerbaijani “activists” to blockade the road, so they haven’t really changed policy or anything. But the checkpoint just hammers home how little interest they have in actually enforcing the terms of the Karabakh ceasefire agreement Moscow mediated back in 2020.
The US intelligence community has reportedly determined that the Islamic State ringleader behind the August 2021 bombing at Kabul airport that killed over 180 people has himself been killed by Afghan/Taliban security forces. There’s no indication when this happened but US analysts were convinced of it as of early April so, presumably, some time before that.
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol is in the US this week, scheduled to make an official state visit to the White House on Wednesday. While there, Foreign Policy’s Robbie Gramer reports, he and US President Joe Biden are likely to make the war in Ukraine a major agenda item:
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol signaled a possible shift in his country’s stance on Russia’s war in Ukraine, opening the door to potentially providing direct military support to Kyiv as Seoul looks to take a larger role in global security, ahead of a major summit with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington this week.
Yoon said in an interview with Reuters ahead of the meeting that South Korea would consider sending aid to Ukraine beyond only “humanitarian or financial support” if Russian forces orchestrated more massacres or large-scale attacks on civilians in Ukraine—comments that reflect Seoul’s efforts to take a more proactive role in U.S.-aligned global alliances as it faces down growing threats from neighboring North Korea and China.
The possible shift would be welcomed with open arms in Washington, where Biden administration officials are urging allies to cobble together more military supplies for Ukraine as NATO’s own stockpiles dwindle. But it could also come with a cost, putting South Korea in both Beijing’s and Moscow’s crosshairs as it deepens relations with the United States and Japan, giving the nascent Yoon administration a sensitive diplomatic challenge. In short, Washington and its NATO allies want South Korea’s massive military stockpiles opened to Ukraine. And Russia is signaling that it will do whatever it takes to stop that.
Yoon’s red line is subjective enough to be meaningless, but it’s noteworthy that he’s articulated a red line at all. There’s no question he’s under pressure from the US to bring South Korea’s substantial military stockpile and robust arms industry to bear on Ukraine, and his comments suggest he’s starting to buckle under that pressure.
Sudan’s latest 72 hour ceasefire, which went into effect on Tuesday morning, began by Tuesday evening to look like it was collapsing. Major clashes between the Sudanese military and the “Rapid Support Forces” were reported in a number of spots in Khartoum and in Omdurman, as well as in West Kordofan state, near Darfur. The RSF claimed to have seized an oil refinery and power plant near Khartoum, and the World Health Organization sounded an alarm over the seizure (it’s not clear by which side) of an infectious disease laboratory in the capital. Meanwhile, imprisoned former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir may be a free man, after the Khartoum prison in which he was being held was reportedly attacked by the RSF over the weekend. Sudanese military officials are claiming that Bashir was moved to another facility prior to that attack but as far as I know that claim hasn’t been confirmed. Ahmed Haroun, a former senior official in Bashir’s administration who’s also been in that prison and was supposedly moved to the same facility was, by his own account, able to leave the prison amid the fighting, and it’s possible Bashir was as well.
The ceasefire, or the possibility of it anyway, has prompted more ambitious evacuation efforts on the part of foreign governments, in particular the UK government, which on Tuesday began an effort to evacuate all 4000 (or so) of its citizens—not just diplomatic staff and families—from Sudan. The US military has now moved two warships into position off of Port Sudan, possibly ahead of an effort to evacuate the estimated 16,000 US nationals currently in Sudan—or at least those who want want to leave. They may also be there as a threat to the warring parties in Sudan to avoid harming any of those US nationals. As for the Sudanese people, as many as are able have been getting out of the areas of heaviest fighting, with tens of thousands winding up in neighboring Chad, Egypt, and South Sudan. The UN says it’s anticipating hundreds of thousands of refugees should the conflict continue. Sudan is home to around 1.1 million refugees, most of them from South Sudan, who may now be displaced again.
The death toll from last week’s civilian massacre in a village in Burkina Faso’s Nord region has risen to over 150, and where initial reports blamed men who were “dressed like” Burkinabé soldiers it seems increasingly clear that it was in fact Burkinabé soldiers who carried out the attack. There’s no indication as to the motive, but the country’s security forces are gaining something of a reputation for human rights abuses against civilians, particularly if they believe those civilians are aiding jihadist militants in some capacity. Prosecutors say they’ve opened an investigation into the massacre, something the United Nations demanded in a statement released by its Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights on Tuesday.
As was reported over the weekend, the Ethiopian government and the rebel Oromo Liberation Army began peace talks in Tanzania’s Zanzibar region on Tuesday. There’s no indication as far as I can tell regarding any sort of agenda or goal for this initial round of negotiations, so perhaps the goal is simply to get the ball rolling rather than any specific achievement.
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa announced on Tuesday that his government intends to withdraw from the International Criminal Court. His office subsequently appeared to walk that statement back, saying that no final decision on South Africa’s ICC membership has been made. The reason for this kerfuffle, seemingly, is the arrest warrant the ICC issued for Russian President Vladimir Putin last month. South Africa and Russia are closely aligned via the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) mechanism, and Putin is scheduled to visit South Africa for a BRICS summit in August. As an ICC member, South Africa will at least technically be obliged to arrest Putin should he actually attend. The South African government can’t complete an ICC withdrawal in time for that summit but it can certainly begin one, which would allow it to justify leaving Putin alone.
The South African government previously considered leaving the ICC in 2016, when a visit by Sudan’s Bashir (see above), similarly wanted by the court, prompted calls for his arrest. In that case authorities simply decided to let Bashir go, which they could easily do with Putin as well though he might demand something more binding than Ramaphosa’s word that he won’t be detained. The politics of quitting the ICC proved so daunting that South African officials eventually dropped the idea, though now it seems they may pick it back up again.
The Swedish government on Tuesday expelled five Russian diplomatic staffers on allegations of spying. I haven’t seen any comment yet from Moscow but standard operating procedure would be for the Russian government to retaliate by expelling five members of Sweden’s diplomatic mission. On a similar note, then, the Russian government did expel a member of Moldova’s diplomatic mission on Tuesday. As you have no doubt already guessed, a Russian staffer was expelled from that country last week.
The deputy administrator of Ukraine’s Kherson oblast, Yuriy Sobolevskiy, told Ukrainian media on Tuesday that military forces have been “conducting raids” on the Russian-held eastern bank of the Dnipro River. Presumably they’re doing so to pave the way for that major counteroffensive that the Ukrainians say is forthcoming. The Institute for the Study of War has been claiming that Ukrainian forces have seized a pocket of territory on the eastern side of the river but to my knowledge there’s been no comment on that claim from the Ukrainians.
The European Union is reportedly close to a deal that would allow five countries that border or are situated close to Ukraine—Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia—to impose temporary import bans on five Ukrainian agricultural exports (maize, rapeseed, sunflower oil, sunflower seeds, and wheat). Those countries have already imposed such bans in an effort to protect their farmers from a collapse in prices due to a glut of Ukrainian products. But their unilateral bans undermine the EU’s common trade policy, so the European Commission is going to ratify the bans in return for those countries agreeing to drop import restrictions on any other Ukrainian products. The five products in question account for roughly 90 percent of Ukrainian farm products entering the EU.
Pretend Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó wound up in Miami on Tuesday after apparently being expelled from, or at least encouraged to leave, Colombia. It seems Guaidó showed up to a summit organized by Colombian President Gustavo Petro to encourage negotiations between the Venezuelan government and its political opposition. Guaidó was not invited but decided to enter Colombia anyway, at which point Colombian immigration officials intercepted him. Whether because he was crashing the summit (after entering the country illegally) or because they were afraid he might declare himself president of Colombia, those immigration officials wound up redirecting him to the United States. Colombian officials insist that they did not actually “expel” him, though I’m not sure what other term would be appropriate. Guaidó says he’s not seeking asylum in the US—his family remains in Venezuela and it’s unlikely he’s prepared to leave them there—and may run for the real Venezuelan presidency later this year, though his support even among opponents of incumbent Nicolás Maduro has collapsed.
As far as the summit was concerned, I’m not sure there’s much to say. Neither the Venezuelan government nor Venezuela’s opposition were represented. Rather, Petro brought together representatives of 19 countries in the Americas and Europe to discuss ways to advance political reconciliation in Caracas. Maduro has said, and he reiterated in a statement released on Tuesday, that he’s prepared to negotiate with the opposition if/when the US government releases what he says are billions of dollars in Venezuelan government funds currently frozen in a foreign bank due to US sanctions.
Negotiations between the Colombian government and National Liberation Army (ELN) rebels that were supposed to begin in Cuba this week have now been postponed until at least May 2. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez announced the delay on Tuesday without giving a reason for it. This will be the third round of talks between the Colombians and ELN since November and the aim is to agree on a durable ceasefire before proceeding to talks about a peace deal. An ELN attack last month threatened the peace process and Petro’s government is still threatening to suspend its participation if there’s more violence.
Finally, Jacobin’s Stephen Semler warns that Republican austerity, combined with the Biden administration’s love of massive military budgets, could force major cuts to social programs in next year’s federal budget:
Last week, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy unveiled the Limit, Save, Grow Act, the House GOP’s budget plan. The bill would cap fiscal year 2024 federal spending at FY2022 levels, or about $260 billion less than the $1.73 trillion budget Joe Biden proposed last month.
The FY2024 budget won’t end up looking like FY2022’s, however. Even though McCarthy’s bill doesn’t specify which parts of the federal budget would be slashed, social programs are clearly the GOP’s primary target.
Oklahoma representative Tom Cole — vice chair of the Appropriations Committee and chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development — said that of the twelve spending measures that make up the annual federal budget, only Pentagon, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (Milcon-VA) appropriations will be spared from cuts. The chairpersons of those subcommittees, Cole said, will be “popping champagne corks,” while “the rest of us will be crying into our beer.” (Cole also sits on the Congressional Bourbon Caucus.)
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