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World roundup: August 10 2023
Stories from Iran, Niger, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
August 10, 1270: Amhara leader Yekuno Amlak is crowned “Emperor of Ethiopia” under the regal name Tesfa Iyasus, having led a rebellion that overthrew the ruling Zagwe dynasty. Yekuno Amlak founded the Solomonic dynasty, so called because it claimed descent (absent any credible evidence) from the biblical Israelite King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. The “House of Solomon” expanded Ethiopia’s borders to and beyond those of the present day nation, and ruled the empire until the military coup that ousted Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974.
August 10, 1920: The Ottoman Empire signs the Treaty of Sèvres, formally withdrawing from World War I and surrendering to the Allied Powers. The terms, which required the empire to give up not only all of its Arab territory but most of its Anatolian territory as well, were so lopsided that they quickly sparked the Turkish War of Independence. The new Republic of Turkey emerged victorious from that war, and the terms of the ensuing 1923 Treaty of Lausanne superseded Sèvres.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
An attack targeting a convoy of Security Belt Forces troops in Yemen’s Abyan province killed at least four people on Thursday. The attack was likely perpetrated by al-Qaeda, which is quite active in Abyan, though there doesn’t seem to be any confirmation of that as yet. The Security Belt militia is affiliated with the secessionist Southern Transitional Council, whose fighters are often targeted by al-Qaeda.
The Turkish military says that six of its personnel and four Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters were killed in a clash in northern Iraq this week. PKK media is also reporting that a Turkish drone strike killed one civilian and wounded another in Iraq’s Sulaymaniyah province on Wednesday.
Somebody decided to shoot at Lebanese Defense Minister Maurice Slim’s car as it was passing through a southern Beirut neighborhood on Thursday. There were no casualties, but small acts of violence like this seem to be occurring more frequently across Lebanon of late, which in the absence of a functioning government is probably cause for some concern. The fallout from another of those incidents, Wednesday’s deadly clash between Hezbollah fighters and residents of the town of Kahaleh, continued to unfold on Thursday as Lebanese army elements deployed in the town and seized the contents of the Hezbollah truck at the center of the incident. Two people (one resident, one Hezbollah fighter) were killed when the truck crashed and its occupants apparently began shooting at onlookers. Army officials say the truck was carrying ammunition.
The Canadian, UK, and US governments on Thursday all sanctioned former Lebanese central bank governor Riad Salameh (along with two other individuals) on corruption allegations. Salameh is under investigation in several European countries for having funneled bank funds into his own investment portfolio. He’s also facing charges in Lebanon, but the legal case against him has been frozen amid the overall culture of impunity that applies to senior Lebanese officials. It’s likely that his position as bank governor prevented him from being sanctioned prior to this, as blacklisting the head of Lebanon’s central bank would have complicated any potential interactions with that institution. Salameh’s term as governor ended last month, and Lebanon’s caretaker government isn’t really empowered to replace him.
Israeli forces killed a Palestinian militant during an arrest raid near the West Bank city of Nablus on Thursday. The deceased was a member of the Fatah Party’s armed wing, al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. I’m not clear from the reporting whether he was the target of the raid, but Israeli officials are as ever insisting that their forces acted in self defense.
The Iranian government on Thursday released four detained US nationals from its notorious Evin prison and transferred them to house arrest. They, along with a fifth US national already in house arrest, are part of an apparent agreement between the US and Iranian governments that will see all five leave Iran in return for the release of some $6 billion in Iranian funds currently frozen in South Korean banks by US sanctions as well as the release of five Iranians in US custody. The deal clearly hasn’t been finalized, hence the house arrest, but if/when it is finalized according to The New York Times the $6 billion will be placed into a fund, administered by the Qatari government, that the Iranians will be able to use to purchase food, medicine, and other basic necessities.
The agreement is the result of lengthy negotiations reportedly mediated by the governments of Oman, Qatar, and Switzerland. It is believed these are the only five US nationals currently being held by Iran, particularly now the the US government has adopted the position that FBI/CIA operative Robert Levinson died in Iranian custody. There does not appear to be anything in this deal regarding Iran’s nuclear program, an ongoing source of tension that US and Iranian officials have discussed on and off for months, but taking the prisoner issue off the table could help un-complicate those discussions. Nor does there appear to be anything here addressing tensions around Iranian naval activities in and around the Persian Gulf, an issue that’s prompted a new US military influx into the region. It’s conceivable, though unlikely, that they’ve reached some sort of unstated understanding around these other issues that isn’t being made public.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi easily survived a parliamentary no confidence vote on Thursday. Opposition parties brought the motion over the Modi government’s response to recent inter-communal violence in India’s Manipur state, but the outcome was never even close to being in doubt. Indeed, opposition legislators walked out of parliament about 100 minutes into Modi’s marathon 130 minute speech against the motion, at which point the vote itself became almost meaningless.
Another outbreak of inter-communal violence, this time in India’s Haryana state, has displaced some 3000 people—most of them Muslim residents of low income neighborhoods—over the past couple of weeks. The violence apparently began when a group of Muslims attacked a Hindu religious procession on July 31 and escalated from there. Most of the subsequent violence has involved Hindus attacking Muslims. At least seven people have been killed.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry on Thursday lambasted the executive order Joe Biden signed the previous day barring investment in certain parts of the Chinese tech sector. In a statement, the ministry accused the US government of practicing “technological hegemony” and trying “to deprive China of its development rights.” There’s no indication Beijing is preparing to retaliate but that of course could change. The Biden administration continues to insist that it does not intend to damage the Chinese economy or even “decouple” from it, but with every new layer of sanctions it gets more difficult to maintain that claim. US sanctions have reached the point where they’re discouraging overall investment in the Chinese economy for fear of inadvertently running afoul of some US penalty or of exposure to future sanctions.
North Korean media reported on Thursday that Kim Jong-un has canned his top military commander, Pak Su-il, replacing him with former defense minister Ri Yong-gil. The rationale behind the change is unclear but Kim has been stressing in party forums of late that the North Korean military needs to get bigger and more advanced post haste in case of war. There’s no indication that we’re ramping up toward a war on the Korean Peninsula, but if, as is widely believed, Pyongyang has been supplying Russian with military hardware then Kim may feel some pressure to replenish stocks. Perhaps Pak was simply not getting the job done.
The Coordination of Azawad Movements, the umbrella group for a coalition of mostly Tuareg former rebels in northern Mali, announced on Thursday that it has pulled its representatives out of Bamako. The CMA and Mali’s ruling junta have seen their relationship steadily erode, with the CMA arguing that the junta has stopped implementing the terms of the peace deal that ended the 2012 northern Mali uprising. Most recently it’s accused the Malian military of seizing control of military bases in northern Mali that have been vacated by United Nations peacekeepers, which it considers to be a violation of the agreement.
Economic Community of West African States members held their planned emergency summit on Thursday to discuss What Is To Be Done about the coup in Niger. They decided to move a step closer to their threatened military intervention by activating the bloc’s standby military force. It will take potentially weeks to assemble that force—which as far as I know only exists in a theoretical sense at this point—and prepare to invade Niger, so this is definitely not the point of no return. It’s an attempt to make a show of force that could prompt the Nigerien junta to negotiate. I doubt it will work but I guess anything is possible. The junta has reportedly threatened to kill ousted Nigerien President Mohamed Bazoum in the event of an invasion, which was an easy threat to see coming but makes it clear that junta leaders aren’t ready to capitulate. In another sign that they’re not planning to go anywhere, junta leaders appointed a new civilian-ish cabinet on Thursday, making a statement that was intended to coincide with the ECOWAS confab.
Gunmen attacked a village in Nigeria’s Plateau state on Thursday, killing at least 20 people. Local residents attributed the attack to Fulani herders, who have been engaged in tit-for-tat violence with farmers in Plateau for several months.
Russian plutocrat Arkady Volozh, the co-founder of Yanex (more or less Russia’s Google), publicly criticized the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Thursday. Volozh, who lives in Israel and thus can say things like this without fear of falling out a window a week later, is a bit late to the party but he’s just the second prominent Russian tycoon to speak negatively about the war for public consumption. There’s been some speculation that the Russian government could nationalize Yanex, though they may be holding off for fear of driving its staff out of Russia and contributing to the “brain drain” that the war and Western sanctions have caused.
The Washington Post reports that the minimal progress Ukraine’s counteroffensive has made thus far is taking a toll on the national mood:
For nearly 18 months, Ukraine has stood against its Russian invaders — rallying support for its troops by embracing last year’s battlefield victories in the Kyiv, Kharkiv and Kherson regions.
Those wins carried beleaguered Ukrainians through a winter of airstrikes on civilian infrastructure and a brutal and symbolic battle for Bakhmut, the eastern city that fell to the Russians in May.
Throughout, Ukrainian officials and their western partners hyped up a coming counteroffensive — one that, buoyed by a flood of new weapons and training, they hoped would turn the tide of the war.
But two months after Ukraine went on the attack, with little visible progress on the front and a relentless, bloody summer across the country, the narrative of unity and endless perseverance has begun to fray.
The number of dead — untold thousands — increases daily. Millions are displaced and see no chance of returning home. In every corner of the country, civilians are exhausted from a spate of recent Russian attacks — including strikes on a historic cathedral in Odessa, a residential building in Kryvyi Rih and a blood transfusion center in the Kharkiv region.
This week, two Russian missiles hit a single block in the eastern town of Pokrovsk — where an evacuation train regularly picks up people fleeing front-line areas nearby — killing civilians and emergency workers who rushed there to save them.
Ukrainians, much in need of good news, are simply not getting any.
A Russian missile strike on Thursday hit a hotel in the city of Zaporizhzhia that is apparently used by UN personnel, killing at least one person and wounding another 16. Russian officials, meanwhile, say their forces downed 13 Ukrainian drones—two bound for Moscow, the rest for Sevastopol.
The Ukrainian military says it’s opening up commercial shipping corridors through the Black Sea to and from three ports near Odesa, though it cannot guarantee the safety of any vessels using them. It seems unlikely that any ships will enter the Black Sea under those conditions, but ship captains whose vessels have been stuck in Ukrainian ports since the collapse of the Black Sea Grain Initiative might decide to take their chances getting out of the war zone.
The Biden administration has asked Congress to authorize $40 billion in additional spending, including $24 billion that would be earmarked for Ukraine ($13.1 billion in military support). Republicans may push back a bit but it seems unlikely they’d derail the request totally.
The assassination of Ecuadorian presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio after his campaign rally in Quito on Wednesday evening was needless to say a shocking event. Much is still unknown about what exactly happened, but authorities say that one of the attackers was killed in a shootout with police following the incident. That person, and another six people arrested in connection with the assassination, are apparently all Colombian nationals with known ties to organized crime. Villavicencio was running on an anti-corruption, anti-crime message alleging ties between Ecuadorian government officials and criminal gangs, so there’s a potential motive there. Despite the assassination, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso said that the election will still take place on August 20 as scheduled.
Finally, TomDispatch’s William Astore considers the US military’s self-proclaimed status as the greatest military in history:
In retrospect, the answer is all too straightforward: we need something to boast about, don’t we? In the once-upon-a-time “exceptional nation,” what else is there to praise to the skies or consider our pride and joy these days except our heroes? After all, this country can no longer boast of having anything like the world’s best educational outcomes, or healthcare system, or the most advanced and safest infrastructure, or the best democratic politics, so we better damn well be able to boast about having “the greatest fighting force” ever.
Leaving that boast aside, Americans could certainly brag about one thing this country has beyond compare: the most expensive military around and possibly ever. No country even comes close to our commitment of funds to wars, weapons (including nuclear ones at the Department of Energy), and global dominance. Indeed, the Pentagon’s budget for “defense” in 2023 exceeds that of the next 10 countries (mostly allies!) combined.
And from all of this, it seems to me, two questions arise: Are we truly getting what we pay so dearly for — the bestest, finest, most exceptional military ever? And even if we are, should a self-proclaimed democracy really want such a thing?
The answer to both those questions is, of course, no. After all, America hasn’t won a war in a convincing fashion since 1945. If this country keeps losing wars routinely and often enough catastrophically, as it has in places like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq, how can we honestly say that we possess the world’s greatest fighting force? And if we nevertheless persist in such a boast, doesn’t that echo the rhetoric of militaristic empires of the past? (Remember when we used to think that only unhinged dictators like Adolf Hitler boasted of having peerless warriors in a megalomaniacal pursuit of global domination?)
Astore concludes that the US military is truly exceptional at two things: spending money and fighting perpetual wars without inconveniencing the US public. That sounds about right.
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