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World roundup: April 8-9 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Taiwan, Finland, and elsewhere
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Happy Easter to those who are celebrating!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
April 7, 529: The Codex Justinianeus, the first section of Roman Emperor Justinian’s Corpus Juris Civilis, is completed. The Corpus Juris Civilis was meant to standardize and codify imperial law, which had fragmented into multiple codices and laws that didn’t necessarily cohere with one another. Justinian ordered a review and modernization of these law codes upon his accession as emperor. The Codex is the product of that effort. Subsequent sections included the Digesta, a compendium of legal writings; the Institutiones, a training manual for jurists; and the Novellae, a compilation of new laws promulgated after the Codex was written. The Corpus Juris Civilis has influenced everything from canon law in the Catholic Church to the legal codes of the Ottoman Balkans and modern Greece to contemporary international law.
April 7, 1994: One day after Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira were assassinated when their aircraft was shot down before landing in Kigali (either by Hutu extremists or by the then-rebel Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front militia), Hutu génocidaires begin slaughtering Tutsi Rwandans en masse. The ensuing genocide left hundreds of thousands dead, including Twa Rwandans and some Hutu along with the Tutsi, with highest estimates putting the death toll at over one million. It finally ended in July, with the military takeover of Rwanda by the RPF under current President Paul Kagame.
April 8, 876: An Abbasid army manages to defeat the rapidly expanding Saffarid empire at the Battle of Dayr al-ʿAqul, possibly saving the caliphate and definitely sending the Saffarids into a decline from which they never recovered.
April 9, 1241: A small Mongolian army under the command of Orda, one of Genghis Khan’s grandsons, defeats a Polish force under the command of Grand Duke Henry II at the Battle of Legnica.
April 9, 1865: Confederate General Robert E. Lee, along with his Army of Northern Virginia, surrenders to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Though there were still other Confederate armies in the field, Lee’s surrender is generally considered to mark the end of the US Civil War.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
A group of major oil producing nations—Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE—agreed earlier this month to a collective cut of around 1 million barrels per day in oil production. Their announcement dovetailed with an announcement by fellow OPEC+ member Russia that it’s leaving a previously announced 500,000 bpd cut in place through at least the rest of this year. Geopolitical implications aside (the US government is, suffice to say, not pleased with this decision), there does seem to be some economic rationale at work here. Global oil prices had drifted below $80/barrel and there are growing fears of a recession or at least economic slowdown in the second half of this year that could push oil demand lower. The Saudis, in particular, want to maintain high prices and not coincidentally they’re shouldering roughly half of this new cutback.
At least six civilians on a truffle hunting expedition were killed by an Islamic State landmine in eastern Syria’s Deir Ezzor province on Sunday, according to state media. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights put the death toll at nine. A similar incident also killed at least six truffle hunters on Saturday in Homs province.
Reuters reported earlier this month that the Saudis are planning to invite Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to attend a summit of Arab League leaders in Riyadh in May. I haven’t seen anything further on this story but it aligns with Assad’s broader rapprochement with other Arab governments and would stand as something of a climax to that process. This potential invite can also be viewed within the larger context of the thaw in the Saudi-Iranian relationship, which is going to be something of a mini-theme in today’s roundup.
To wit, delegates from Saudi Arabia and Oman turned up in Sanaa on Sunday for negotiations with Houthi rebel officials on bringing the war in Yemen to an end. Reuters had a scoop about this visit on Friday, reporting that the talks would focus on achieving “a permanent ceasefire deal” that the parties are hoping to announce around the Eid al-Fitr holiday (April 20, give or take), along with the lifting of restrictions on air traffic and shipping as well as the provision of Yemeni central bank funds to pay public workers in rebel-controlled areas. Talks would proceed from there to more complex subjects like postwar reconstruction and the formation of a transitional government.
There’s been no formal announcement of this as far as I can tell but it appears the Saudis and the Houthis have already agreed, as The Wall Street Journal is reporting, to maintain their de facto ceasefire through at least the end of this year as a prelude to negotiating a permanent cessation of hostilities. The Saudis released 13 Houthi prisoners in advance of Sunday’s meeting and ahead of a much larger prisoner swap that’s set to take place next week. This flurry of moves toward peace probably wouldn’t be taking place if it weren’t for that Saudi-Iranian thaw, a development that it’s probably worth reiterating was enabled by Chinese, not US, mediation.
It would appear that the Turkish military carried out a drone strike on Friday near the Suleimaniyah International Airport in northern Iraq, possibly targeting Syrian Democratic Forces commander Mazloum Abdi. While Turkish officials haven’t acknowledged the incident it’s drawn condemnations from both the SDF and the Iraqi presidential office. I’m not entirely clear what Abdi was doing in Suleimaniyah, but he was apparently accompanied by personnel from the US-led, anti-Islamic State taskforce, possibly including US personnel. There’s some reason to think that this was a “warning shot” meant to discourage US collaboration with Abdi, though it is also entirely possible that the Turks were looking to kill Abdi even if it meant killing US soldiers along with him.
It would appear that Sunday passed relatively peacefully on the al-Aqsa compound in East Jerusalem, in marked contrast with the violence that surrounded the site for much of the week. That violence began with a couple of Israeli police raids on al-Aqsa Mosque on Wednesday to dislodge what Israeli officials described as “hundreds of rioters and mosque desecrators”—the Israeli government is famous for its deep concern regarding the sanctity of al-Aqsa—who’d allegedly barricaded themselves inside with stockpiles of rocks and fireworks. Those raids sparked a barrage of rocket fire out of Gaza, to which the Israelis responded with airstrikes.
Thursday and Friday saw more rocket fire from Gaza and from southern Lebanon into Israel, which brought additional Israel airstrikes in response. Friday also saw two attacks by Palestinian militants, one near the West Bank settlement of Efrat that killed two people and another in Tel Aviv that killed at least one person and left seven others wounded. Israeli forces killed one Palestinian man in the West Bank on Saturday, in circumstances that are not entirely clear. Overnight a new round of rocket fire, this time from Syria, drew an Israeli artillery barrage in response.
Tensions around al-Aqsa are always high during Ramadan, especially when that observance intersects with the Passover holiday as it has this year. But tensions are somewhat higher than usual, most likely because of the growing political power of the radical Israel settler movement and its push to change the tenuous legal status quo governing the site. Ramadan’s overnight prayer vigils have taken on the feel of garrisoning the mosque against any attempt to damage it or, as some settler groups have been demanding, to conduct Passover animal sacrifices on its grounds.
Picking up on that mini-theme I mentioned above, the Saudis also sent representatives to Iran over the weekend to talk about further normalizing diplomatic ties, with a particular focus on reopening the Saudi embassy in Tehran and its former consulate in the city of Mashhad. This latest development came a couple of days after Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian met in Beijing to affirm their new Chinese-brokered harmonization.
There’s still no way to know if this thaw is going to progress to a full restoration of diplomatic and commercial relations, but it already appears to be paying dividends in Yemen and otherwise the process seems to be off to a solid start. It’s also caused a good deal of consternation in Washington. The Biden administration reportedly dispatched CIA Director William Burns to Riyadh in recent days to complain that the Saudis are making nice with the Iranian and Syrian governments without clearing anything with the US first. Apparently the US government feels “blindsided” by these developments, which deviate from Washington’s purely rhetorical interest in peace by actually advancing the tangible possibility of peace in a region US policy has kept at, or on the brink of, war pretty much since the end of the Cold War.
Afghan security forces reportedly killed two Islamic State fighters in an operation in Nimroz province on Sunday. The Afghan forces suffered no casualties.
Elsewhere, the Afghan government has barred Afghan women from working for the United Nations in Afghanistan. In addition to serving as another blow against women’s rights this may be the death knell for whatever humanitarian assistance Afghanistan is still getting, as many NGOs have already been barred from employing Afghan women and have drastically reduced their presence in the country as a result. Taliban leaders had previously exempted the UN from that ban but apparently they’re not doing that anymore. Even if the UN is able to continue operating—which is a tall order, given the political symbolism at stake and given how difficult it is to distribute aid without employing at least some female staff—this decision is likely to further depress an already heavily depressed international aid funding stream.
The Pakistani Taliban (TTP) claimed responsibility for a roadside bombing that killed at least two soldiers in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Saturday, though it claimed that the blast actually killed eight people. The TTP also claimed responsibility for a grenade attack in a different part of the province that killed at least one police officer and wounded two others.
As expected, US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy led a group of Congress members who met with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in Los Angeles on Wednesday. Also as expected, the Chinese government has reacted with some hostility to the meeting. The Chinese military on Saturday began a three-day exercise in the Taiwan Strait and around Taiwan’s coasts. That exercise has brought a number of Chinese ships and aircraft into close proximity to Taiwan and has apparently simulated attacks on Taiwan, but if that’s as far as things go—particularly if the drills do indeed end on Monday as scheduled—then this response will be pretty subdued compared with the extensive military and economic reaction Beijing had to then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan back in August.
North Korean media is reporting that the country’s military conducted another test of a “nuclear capable” underwater drone from Tuesday through Friday, sending the vehicle a reported 1000 kilometers of “simulated underwater distance” before detonating a test warhead. The drone is called “Haeil-2” and is different in some unspecified way from the “Haeil-1” vehicle the North Koreans had tested the previous week. The North Koreans claimed that weapon was able to cause a “radioactive tsunami,” which is one of those theoretical sorts of outcomes that sounds terrifying but that, like the fabled “electromagnetic pulse,” is less worrisome than the possibility of a garden variety nuclear strike.
At least 44 people were killed in attacks on two villages in northern Burkina Faso’s Sahel region that began late Thursday and continued overnight into Friday. Authorities didn’t offer any indication as to who was responsible when they announced the death toll on Saturday. That region is overrun by al-Qaeda and Islamic State affiliated jihadists.
Nigerian authorities said on Saturday that they’ve confirmed at least 74 people killed in two attacks in Benue state this week. The larger of the two incidents took place on Wednesday and is believed to have involved an attack by herdsmen on a village in which at least 46 people were killed. The second incident took place late Friday in a displaced persons camp and left at least 28 people dead. That second incident may also have been a case of herder violence though at this point it doesn’t sound like officials have a good handle on what actually happened. Benue is one of several Nigerian states plagued by inter-communal violence between farming and herding communities that compete for increasingly scarce resources.
Elsewhere, unspecified gunmen reportedly abducted more than 80 people from a village in Nigeria’s Zamfara state on Friday. Much of northwestern Nigeria, including Zamfara, has been plagued by bandit gangs that frequently engage in kidnapping for ransom. Many of the abductees in this case appear to have been teenagers from neighboring villages who were doing seasonal farm labor.
The Chadian government on Friday expelled Germany’s ambassador, Gordon Kricke, from the country. He’d apparently criticized the junta’s alleged political transition.
Thousands of people in Ethiopia’s Amhara region protested on Sunday against an order from the Ethiopian government that will bring regional special forces across the country under a federal government command structure. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed issued that order on Thursday and so far the hostile reception seems to be confined to Amhara. Regular readers will be aware that Amhara regional forces are currently occupying disputed territory that is still techincally considered part of the Tigray region, after fighting alongside federal forces and the Eritrean military in the 2020-2022 war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. There’s some sentiment that Abiy’s government gave Amhara the proverbial shaft in the peace process that ended that conflict, and that sentiment is contributing to fears that putting regional forces under federal control will leave the Amhara region defenseless.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Suspected Allied Democratic Forces fighters killed at least 22 residents of the Oicha commune in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province in an attack that began late Friday. Earlier in the week ADF fighters killed more than 30 civilians across several attacks in neighboring Ituri province.
Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas announced on Saturday that her Reform Party has cut a new coalition deal with the Estonia 200 and Social Democratic parties that will leave her with a comfortable 60 seat majority in the 101 seat Estonian parliament. Kallas emerged as the big winner of last month’s election, with Reform emerging with a net gain of three seats.
There’s not much new to report from Ukraine, where the main focus of the fighting continues to be the eastern city of Bakhmut. Russian forces are in control of the city center but still haven’t pushed the city’s Ukrainian defenders all the way out of town. Neither have they been able to fully encircle the city. Russian forces also reportedly bombarded Ukraine’s Kharkiv, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia oblasts over the weekend, killing at least seven people. There were calls for an “Easter ceasefire” that went unheeded, possibly because it’s not Easter yet in either Ukraine or Russia. Check back next weekend.
Incumbent Milo Đukanović’s “victory” in the first round of Montenegro’s presidential election last month translated into a fairly overwhelming defeat to former Economy Minister Jakov Milatović in the runoff last Sunday. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Đukanović wasn’t able to do much better than the 35 percent he won in the first round, taking a bit over 41 percent to Milatović’s nearly 59 percent in the final tally. Đukanović has been perhaps the central figure in Montenegrin politics since the early 1990s but has lost considerable popularity in recent years due in part to a wave of corruption allegations. It is of course too soon to say whether he still has a political future.
Finland’s conservative National Coalition Party won last Sunday’s parliamentary election, unseating incumbent Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s Social Democratic Party and putting NCP boss Petteri Orpo in line for her job. However, it’s unclear where Orpo is going to turn for coalition partners, which he’ll presumably need since NCP only emerged with 48 seats, 53 shy of a parliamentary majority. The far-right Finns Party, which took 46 seats, is one possibility, but there’s a risk that no other parties would be willing to participate in a coalition that includes the Finns. SDP is another option, but the two parties could struggle to find common ground.
One thing Orpo will not have to worry about is Finland’s NATO accession. That’s because Finland became a NATO member on April 4, making it the alliance’s 31st member. So they’ve got that going for them, which is nice. Finland’s entry roughly doubles the NATO-Russia border, which should make for some fun times ahead, and adds a military that’s largely been built for the purpose of repelling a potential Russian invasion.
Official Brazilian government data shows that the rate of Amazon deforestation rose by 14 percent last month as compared with March 2022, despite efforts by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to protect the rainforest. Deforestation is still down 11 percent overall compared with the first three months of 2022 but it’s up 39 percent for the period from last August through this March (the Brazilian government’s “year” with respect to tracking deforestation data runs from August through July). The Brazilian government is still rebuilding its capacity to track and prevent deforestation after the Bolsonaro administration largely decimated it.
The “Ti Makak” gang reportedly killed three Haitian police officers on Sunday in an attack in the Thomassin region just south of Port-au-Prince. This makes at least 21 police officers killed by Haitian gangs so far this year, a figure that is helping to fuel calls for an international anti-gang intervention. The UN has estimated that gang violence has claimed more than 530 lives in Haiti in 2023.
Finally, a tranche of classified US documents has turned up on social media in recent days, prompting concerns with respect to the war in Ukraine and making for some uncomfortable revelations about a number of US allies. Here’s a bit from the New York Times report on the leak:
A new batch of classified documents that appear to detail American national security secrets from Ukraine to the Middle East to China surfaced on social media sites on Friday, alarming the Pentagon and adding turmoil to a situation that seemed to have caught the Biden administration off guard.
The scale of the leak — analysts say more than 100 documents may have been obtained — along with the sensitivity of the documents themselves, could be hugely damaging, U.S. officials said. A senior intelligence official called the leak “a nightmare for the Five Eyes,” in a reference to the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, the so-called Five Eyes nations that broadly share intelligence.
The latest documents were found on Twitter and other sites on Friday, a day after senior Biden administration officials said they were investigating a potential leak of classified Ukrainian war plans, include an alarming assessment of Ukraine’s faltering air defense capabilities. One slide, dated Feb. 23, is labeled “Secret/NoForn,” meaning it was not meant to be shared with foreign countries.
The Justice Department said it had opened an investigation into the leaks and was in communication with the Defense Department but declined to comment further.
There’s no space in tonight’s roundup to go into much more detail but we may have more to discuss about some of these leaks in the coming days. What particularly seems to have Washington concerned are leaks that suggest that Ukraine is running out of Western ammunition and leaks that include US assessments of Russia’s military losses. The latter is problematic because those leaks may reveal where the US intelligence community has penetrated the Russian military and government. The leaks also seem to show evidence that the US has been spying on some of its closest allies, which needless to say is a bit awkward. As I say, there may be more to discuss on some of those fronts moving forward.
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