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World roundup: April 29-30 2023
Stories from Syria, Uzbekistan, Paraguay, and elsewhere
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THIS WEEKEND IN HISTORY
April 29, 1916: A British army besieged at Kut, in Iraq, surrenders to the Ottomans in what was the worst military disaster in British history to that point.
April 30, 1803: US representatives Robert Livingston and James Monroe and French representative François Barbé-Marbois sign the Louisiana Purchase Treaty in Paris. The treaty ceded France’s vast Louisiana Territory in North America to the United States, roughly doubling the young nation’s size, in return for $15 million. Livingston and Monroe intended to negotiate the purchase of the port city of New Orleans and were prepared to pay up to $10 million just for the one city. But Napoleon decided to sell the entire territory because he needed a large chunk of land in North America less than he needed peaceable relations with the US and money for his inevitable war with Britain. Most of the Louisiana Territory wasn’t really Napoleon’s to sell, as it still belonged to Indigenous tribes, but in purchasing it the US bought the “right” to acquire that land by whatever means it chose.
April 30, 1975: The North Vietnamese army and the Viet Cong capture Saigon, bringing the Vietnam War to a close. The North Vietnamese had begun their assault on the city the day before, when the remaining US personnel in Saigon began an evacuation known as “Operation Frequent Wind” that cleared out the US embassy and moved some 7000 US and Vietnamese nationals out of the country in the largest helicopter evacuation in history. The North Vietnamese government, which wasn’t really the “North” Vietnamese government anymore, renamed Saigon Hồ Chí Minh City, and this date is commemorated annually in Vietnam as Reunification Day.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced triumphantly on Sunday that Turkish intelligence operatives had killed Islamic State “caliph” Abu’l-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurayshi (not his real name, of course) in Syria the previous day. They apparently found him in the town of Jindires in northern Syria’s Aleppo province, which is under the control of Turkey and its Syrian rebel proxies. Qurayshi is/was IS’s fourth leader and, assuming he indeed is no longer among us, would be the fourth to be killed in action, so to speak. I bet IS saves some money on its leadership pension plans, come to think of it. He took over the organization in late November and ruled so briefly that I’m not sure anybody had enough time to develop a good theory as to his real identity.
Erdoğan hit the campaign trail on Saturday after a three day absence due to illness. So if anyone out there was harboring any secret theory about what was ailing him—heart attack, stroke, he had to go because his planet needed him, etc.—I think it’s reasonable to conclude it wasn’t life threatening.
At Jacobin, Palestinian activist Khalida Jarrar discusses life under Israeli occupation and in particular under the current Israeli government:
There is an escalation of the violence with this new fascist government. All Israeli governments violate the rights of Palestinians by arresting and killing people, but we look at this new government and see people like [Israeli minister of finance] Bezalel Smotrich or [Itamar] Ben-Gvir, who was convicted of terrorism against Palestinians by Israeli police. Now he’s not just part of the Israeli government — he’s the minister for national security.
Ben-Gvir has threatened more laws against prisoners and wants to bring in capital punishment. As minister, he announced his support for and gave a gift to a soldier who killed a Palestinian civilian in Shuafat refugee camp. The soldier beat the man and shot him at point blank. Ben-Gvir is not a civilian or even just a settler. He is an Israeli cabinet minister. Ben-Gvir told the soldier that he appreciated what he did and the world kept silent. [Since this interview, Israel has approved a new national guard under Ben-Gvir’s command that will focus on “Arab unrest.”]
According to Reuters, there’s a strong likelihood that the Iranian Navy’s seizure of an oil tanker, the Advantage Sweet, in the Gulf of Oman on Thursday was carried out in retaliation for the US Navy’s seizure of an Iranian oil tanker on the high seas several days earlier. The ship and its cargo were deemed to violate US sanctions. The timing of the Iranian action and technical similarities between the two tankers in question makes it very hard to believe that Thursday’s move was coincidental.
On a related note, The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that the US military is now sending “bunker buster” bombs to the Middle East to be mounted on A-10 Warthog aircraft flying cover for US forces in Syria. This is somehow supposed to Send A Message to Iran about how committed the US is to killing Syrian militia fighters, which I guess the Iranians haven’t figured out yet? I’m not entirely sure. Anyway, Message Sent.
Armenian Foreign Minister Ararat Mirzoyan arrived in Washington on Sunday for talks, I guess, to try to restart a very stalled out Armenian-Azerbaijani peace process. I say “I guess” because from what I can tell there’s been no acknowledgement from Azerbaijan that any talks are happening, nor is there any indication that they’ve sent anyone to DC to participate. This does not fill me with optimism about the chances of a major diplomatic breakthrough but I suppose we shall see.
Uzbek voters headed to the polls on Sunday for a constitutional referendum, the main purpose of which is to allow President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to remain in office beyond the 2026 end of his current, second, term. The proposed constitutional amendments deal with a number of civil rights issues, labor rights, education, and legal process matters, but the headline is a clause that would change presidential terms from five to seven years. If interpreted strictly this would allow Mirziyoyev to stay in office until 2028. If interpreted the way Mirziyoyev interprets it, this change would reset his term counter to zero and allow him to run two more times under the new setup.
Results won’t be available until Monday. Mirziyoyev seems to be fairly popular, so it’s likely his referendum will win legitimately, though despite his reputation as a relative liberal by Central Asian standards I suspect he’ll make sure the official outcome is to his liking regardless of how the actual vote goes.
Last weekend, The Washington Post published a Terrifying Story suggesting that Islamic State is using Afghanistan as a “terrorism staging ground.” I noted this very silly report and dismissed it, seeing as how IS has not actually been able to carry out any international terrorist attacks via Afghanistan, but Robert Wright gave it a more thorough treatment that may be of interest. As he rightly points out, the piece is framed to support critics of the US decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and their hair-on-fire warnings that terrorists would use Afghanistan to hatch their Vile Plans and Schemes. Unfortunately for those folks, reality has shown exactly the opposite, but the Post reporters just elide that uncomfortable fact in their piece.
The Sudanese military and the “Rapid Support Forces” paramilitary unit have agreed once again to extend their ceasefire, which had been scheduled to expire at midnight local time, for another 72 hours. They could probably streamline things and just extend it indefinitely, seeing as how they’ve kept on fighting anyway despite the ceasefire. In a bit of gallows humor, in their extension announcement each side accused the other of ceasefire violations. They’re both right, so that’s something. The fighting on the ground remains heaviest in and around Khartoum as well as in Darfur. It continues to show indications of a stalemate, with the Sudanese military now apparently calling up members of the national police force to bolster its manpower.
As the fighting continues there are growing concerns about Sudanese civilians, especially those trapped in areas of heavy fighting without easy access to food, water, medical care, and other basic needs. Martin Griffiths, the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, is reportedly heading to the region to try to coordinate relief efforts. The Red Cross organized a major airlift of supplies into Sudan on Sunday, but there are huge logistical hurdles to distributing that aid and a real threat that it could be looted by one or both sides. In a genuine piece of good news, the UN’s refugee office has finally been able to deploy resources to Egypt to help care for the large number of Sudanese refugees who have entered that country over the past two weeks. Estimates on the number of displaced Sudanese civilians have now reached into the “hundreds of thousands,” with many still attempting to get across one of the country’s borders.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The CODECO militia is believed to have been responsible for attacks on three villages in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province on Sunday. At least eight people were killed in total.
According to Russian authorities, Ukrainian artillery fire struck a village in Russia’s Bryansk oblast on Saturday, killing at least four people. The village in question lies around ten kilometers from the Ukrainian border, which would seem to put it within reach of Ukrainian artillery.
Also within range of Ukrainian weapons? Crimea, where a Ukrainian drone strike appears to have caused a fire at a fuel storage facility in Sevastopol on Saturday. There were no casualties as far as I am aware. Ukrainian officials never officially claim responsibility for attacks inside Russia or in Crimea, but they certainly offer abundant winks and nods in that direction and that was the case in this instance.
Elsewhere, the situation in Bakhmut seems to be unchanged, by which I mean the Russians are claiming small advances and the Ukrainians are insisting that Everything Is Fine, nothing to see here. Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin has even resumed his previous complaining about his fighters being deprived of ammunition by the Russian military. He’s apparently threatening to pull his fighters back from the front line, which would be a significant development if it were to happen but it’s highly unlikely.
Paraguayan voters went to the polls on Sunday and appear to have decided to keep things pretty much the way they are now. There may still be a few votes to count, or not by the time you read this, but former Finance Minister Santiago Peña of Paraguay’s ruling Colorado party looks to have an insurmountable edge in the race to become the country’s next president, holding a roughly 15 point lead at last count over opposition candidate Efraín Alegre. It will take more time to assess the legislative and gubernatorial results but Colorado also seems to be doing quite well in those as well. This result will be very welcome in Taiwan, which counts Paraguay as one of the 13 states with which it still has diplomatic relations. Alegre had suggested he might switch recognition to Beijing but Peña has pledged to maintain ties with Taipei.
Finally, I highly recommend this historical examination of the NATO alliance by New Left Review’s Grey Anderson:
Military alliances, by definition, are an agreement on the use of force against a rival. But this is not their only, or even primary role. Ensuring internal order, encouraging commerce and disseminating ideology are additional alliance activities, far from exhaustive. As well as offering a framework for collective defence, and thus for coercive diplomacy, they may also serve as pacts of restraint, through which a strong power manages its weaker allies, potential adversaries seek conciliation or contracting parties pledge mutual forbearance. Since its inception in 1949, NATO has assumed all of these functions; each, however, has not been equal in significance, and their relative weight has shifted with time.
From the beginning, the architects of the North Atlantic Treaty were under few illusions as to the military utility of their compact. In the unlikely event of a Soviet offensive on Western Europe, a handful of under-armed American divisions could not be counted on to turn the tide. With the militarization of the alliance at the turn of the 1950s (acquiring its ‘organization’ and integrated command as Chinese troops crossed the Yalu), the forces at the disposal of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) grew more formidable—by the middle of the decade, equipped with 280mm M65 atomic cannon—but schemes to mount a defence at the Fulda Gap or on the North German plains were always far-fetched and recognized as such. Of greater concern, in the immediate postwar years, was the enemy at home. European leaders looked to NATO as a bulwark against internal subversion as much as against the Red Army. Such considerations illuminate a further dimension of the alliance. For propagandists then as now, its mandate extended to ‘values’ as well as security. Did the 1949 Treaty not engage signatories not only to ‘maintain the security of the North Atlantic area’ above the Tropic of Cancer but also ‘to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law’?
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