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World roundup: April 26 2022
Stories from Turkey, Sudan, Moldova, and more
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THESE DAYS 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.
April 26, 2005: Under considerable international pressure due to its suspected involvement in the February 14 assassination of then-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri, the Syrian government withdraws the last of its occupation forces from Lebanon. Syria had invaded Lebanon in May 1976 during the Lebanese Civil War, in support of Maronite and conservative Muslim factions and in opposition to the Palestine Liberation Organization and leftist militias. Tensions later emerged between the Syrians and some Maronite leaders, like current Lebanese President Michel Aoun. Initially the Syrian military presence in Lebanon was legitimized by the Arab League under the auspices of a peacekeeping force, but by the mid-1980s the Arab League had stopped renewing its mandate and the Syrian presence in Lebanon could be considered a full-fledged military occupation.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday adopted a resolution, authored by Liechtenstein, under which the UNGA will hold a “debate” when one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council uses its veto. The measure, which is motivated at least in part by recent Russian vetoes related to the war in Ukraine, is toothless in the sense that the “debate” will have no actual impact on the veto. But it could oblige the vetoing party to withstand some embarrassing criticism, for whatever that’s worth.
Another Israeli missile attack apparently struck areas around Damascus early Wednesday morning. It’s too soon for any details as to target or possible casualties, but there may be more to say about this incident tomorrow.
According to Reuters, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will head to Saudi Arabia on Thursday for a confab with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the latest and symbolically most significant step in their bilateral rapprochement. Turkish prosecutors recently transferred their legal proceeding in the Jamal Khashoggi murder case to Saudi Arabia, effectively quashing it, as part of Ankara’s effort to repair relations with Riyadh and specifically with MBS.
Two Islamic State suicide bombers attacked an Iraqi military unit in a rural area north of Baghdad on Tuesday. The first killed at least two Iraqi soldiers while the second was apparently killed before detonating. Also on Tuesday, the Iraqi military claimed that it “neutralized” (presumably killed, though it could also mean captured) 43 “Islamic State elements” in a recent operation in Nineveh province.
Israeli occupation forces killed a Palestinian man on Tuesday during an arrest raid in a refugee camp near the West Bank city of Jericho. This is the latest in a string of deadly Israeli raids across the West Bank that have killed upwards of 30 people over the past few weeks.
Responsible Statecraft’s Ben Freeman takes a gander at the world of DC think tanks and their money:
While the world focuses on Ukraine, the United States has abandoned the Middle East. Or, at least that’s the story told from a steady stream of commentary bemoaning supposed U.S. neglect of its Middle East partners.
Firas Maksad of the Middle East Institute, for example, dubbed the rift a “crisis” in a Wall Street Journal op-ed in March calling on Biden to renew the U.S.’s “commitment to regional defense by publicly affirming a strategic alliance” with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, or both countries will continue to cozy up to Beijing and Moscow.
On CNN Maksad argued the United States was shirking its role as “underwriter of regional security,” which, “sends alarm bells ringing both in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi and has them thinking about how to diversify away from the United States even further.”
Maksad’s MEI colleagues, Bilal Saab and Karen Young, kept up the drumbeat in early April with a Foreign Policy article arguing for a new U.S. “strategic defense framework with the Gulf Arab states.” The article followed an MEI policy memo accusing the United States of being supportive of Iran’s expansionism which, amongst other issues, purportedly pushed Saudi Arabia and the UAE closer to China and Russia.
Having read that excerpt, I bet you’ll never guess which two Middle Eastern countries are among MEI’s top four funders.
Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has quit the ruling Amanat Party, leadership of which he only just assumed in January, leaving his former chief of staff Yerlan Koshanov in charge as new party chair. Tokayev took over the party—previously called Nur Otan—from his predecessor, Nursultan Nazarbayev, amid a general purge of Nazarbayev and his allies from senior political and business positions. Tokayev has expressed a desire for more competitive Kazakh politics and placing himself “above” partisan politics could be one way to help level the playing field between Amanat and other parties.
The Afghan government is reportedly sending a delegation to Tehran to discuss escalating border tensions. Iranian and Afghan security forces apparently clashed with one another earlier this month at the Islam Qala border crossing in Afghanistan’s Herat province, while the Afghan side is concerned over reports of Afghan nationals being mistreated in Iran. Kabul is presumably keen to prevent its relations with Iran from deteriorating to where they were the last time the Taliban was in power, in the late 1990s.
A suicide bomber killed at least three Chinese teachers and a Pakistani, possibly the driver of their minibus, in Karachi on Tuesday. The separatist Baluch Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the attack, which took place on the campus of Karachi University. Chinese nationals are a frequent target for Baluch separatists, who generally oppose the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative).
The North Korean military held a late night parade on Monday to celebrate its 90th birthday. Parade reviews are not really our thing here and there’s not much that can be gleaned from watching a bunch of possibly mocked-up weaponry in procession, but among the weapons on display appeared to be submarine-launched ballistic missiles and “hypersonic” weaponry, as well as intercontinental ballistic missiles. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un addressed the attendees and made some vague comments that could be interpreted as adopting a more proactive nuclear posture.
Assistant US Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink decided for some reason on Tuesday to restate the Biden administration’s threat to “respond” in some unspecified way should China’s security agreement with the Solomon Islands lead to a permanent military presence. The administration won’t even rule out the possibility of taking military action against the Solomons should this scenario come to pass. At some point you’d think it would dawn on Serious People in DC that spending a trillion dollars a year on the security state and threatening to pulverize any small country that doesn’t do what the US wants is not a great way to win hearts and minds, but I digress.
The Solomons-China pact is apparently having some effect on the upcoming Australian election, as a new poll shows Labor holding a 53-47 lead over Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s coalition ahead of next month’s vote while using the pact to undermine Morrison’s national security pitch to voters. Given that Morrison won the 2019 election despite unfavorable polling I’d say the election is still up for grabs at this point.
The death toll after days of inter-communal violence in Sudan’s West Darfur state has climbed over 200, according to local sources. The notorious Janjaweed militia appears to be responsible for most of the killing, possibly in conjunction with the Sudanese government’s paramilitary Rapid Support Forces unit. The RSF was formed out of the Janjaweed in 2013 and the lines between it and the remaining militia are somewhat blurry. There are reports of military aircraft being used in Janjaweed attacks, which isn’t something the militia could orchestrate on its own.
The Burkinabé government and United Nations are warning of a massive increase in food insecurity across Burkina Faso, primarily related to rising jihadist violence. An estimated 3.5 million people are believed to be in some state of food insecurity, some 630,000 of them critically so. The situation has worsened as the violence has spread out of northern Burkina Faso and into the country’s major central and southern agricultural regions (and beyond—see below).
Unknown gunmen attacked a police station in northern Benin’s Alibori province early Tuesday, killing at least one police officer and setting fire to the station. Northern Benin is increasingly affected by jihadist violence spilling across the border from Burkina Faso, so it’s likely this incident is connected to that trend.
The Russian firm Gazprom has told its Polish and Bulgarian customers that it will cut off gas shipments to those countries effective Wednesday. There’s been no comment from Gazprom on this decision but it almost certainly relates to their unwillingness to pay for their gas imports in rubles, as Moscow is demanding. In Poland’s case it may also have to do with the fact that Warsaw blacklisted Gazprom along with dozens of other Russian individuals and entities on Tuesday. Bulgarian and Polish officials seemed relatively unfazed by the cut off, suggesting that their current gas stockpiles should last long enough for them to arrange alternative suppliers.
In news from Ukraine:
UN Secretary-General António Guterres visited Moscow on Tuesday and, while he doesn’t seem to have made much progress on ending the war in Ukraine, he says he did secure an agreement “in principle” from Vladimir Putin to allow the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross to participate in an evacuation of civilians from Mariupol’s besieged Azovstal steel plant. This isn’t nothing, I guess, but agreements in principle tend to go off the rails when the parties start trying to convert the principle into practice.
There were indications of increased Russian activity in southern Ukraine on Tuesday, as Moscow announced the seizure—uh, I mean “liberation”—of the entirety of Kherson oblast. The Russians have been in control of Kherson city since the first days of the invasion. In addition to being a stepping stone on the road to Odessa and, potentially, Moldova, Kherson is strategically significant in that the province controls the supply of fresh water to Russian-annexed Crimea.
Ukrainian officials also say that the Russian military is targeting routes used to bring Western-supplied arms into the country. I’m not sure this comes as a surprise but it is spurring calls from Kyiv for more and better air defense systems to protect what’s left of its transportation infrastructure. On that note, the US hosted a number of Western defense ministers at its Ramstein airbase in Germany on Tuesday to discuss the ongoing effort to supply arms to Ukraine. Among the various outcomes of that meeting was a commitment from the German government, which has taken criticism for refusing to send heavy arms to Ukraine, to take a more active role in that process. German officials are now pledging to sent Gepard antiaircraft vehicles to Ukraine and to send Marder armored infantry vehicles to Slovenia under a deal that would see Slovenia send its Soviet-era T-72 tanks on to Ukraine. Berlin is still hesitant to send heavy offensive weaponry directly to Kyiv.
There are a number of questions swirling around regarding what’s happening in Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region, where explosions over the past two days have targeted the offices of the separatist republic’s interior ministry, members of its armed forces, and a radio tower. No casualties have been reported but that hasn’t diminished the speculation about who is behind these attacks. The republic’s president, Vadim Krasnoselsky, told Russian media on Tuesday that “the traces of these attacks lead to Ukraine” while the Ukrainian government is suggesting the blasts have been “false flag” incidents meant to provide a pretext for Russia to expand its war into Moldova. Neither of these is particularly satisfying as an explanation—it doesn’t seem like a particularly ideal time for either Ukraine or Russia to try to expand their conflict, though it’s possible Moldovan separatists have taken matters into their own hands—which may be part of the reason why the US government seems noncommittal on the subject.
Finally, with attention rightly focused on civilian casualties in Ukraine, TomDispatch’s Nick Turse reminds us of the civilian casualties of the “War on Terror” who have never really gotten much attention:
For the last two decades, the United States has been conducting an undeclared war across much of the globe, employing proxy forces from Africa to Asia, deploying commandos from the Philippines to the West African nation of Burkina Faso, and conducting air strikes not only in Libya, but in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. Over those years, the U.S. military has taken pains to normalize the use of drone warfare outside established war zones while relying on allies around the world (as at that Italian base in Siracusa) to help conduct its global war.
“Clearly, a drone operation employing lethal force is not routine,” said Chantal Meloni, legal advisor at the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights. “While AFRICOM is directly responsible, the Italian commander must have known about and approved the operation and can therefore be criminally responsible as an accomplice for having allowed the unlawful lethal attack.”
That November 2018 drone attack in Libya was anything but a one-off strike. During just six months in 2011, alone, U.S. MQ-1 Predator drones flying from Sigonella conducted 241 air strikes in Libya during Operation Unified Protector — the NATO air campaign against then-Libyan autocrat Muammar Gaddafi — according to retired Lt. Col. Gary Peppers, the former commander of the 324th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron. The unit was responsible, he told The Intercept in 2018, for “over 20 percent of the total of all Hellfire [missiles] expended in the 14 years of the system’s deployment.”
The U.S. air war in Libya accelerated in 2016 with Operation Odyssey Lightning. That summer, the Libyan Government of National Accord requested American help in dislodging Islamic State fighters from Sirte. The Obama administration designated the city an “area of active hostilities,” loosening guidelines designed to prevent civilian casualties. Between August and December of that year, according to an AFRICOM press release, the U.S. carried out in Sirte alone “495 precision airstrikes against Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices, heavy guns, tanks, command and control centers, and fighting positions.”