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World roundup: August 15 2023
Stories from Afghanistan, Libya, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
August 15, 718: The Siege of Constantinople ends
August 15, 1914: The Panama Canal formally opens with the passage of a US commercial vessel, the SS Ancon. After the US took over the canal project from France in 1904 the project cost some $500 million to complete. It also cost the lives of some 5600 workers, a frighteningly high figure that is nevertheless much improved from the 22,000 workers who died on the job during the initial French effort in the 1880s.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Another Islamic State attack on pro-government forces in Syria, this time in Homs province, left at least three militia fighters dead and another eight wounded on Tuesday according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. IS has been stepping up the frequency of its strikes against government forces in Syria in recent weeks, coinciding with the announcement earlier this month that another of its “caliphs” had been killed. The campaign seems like an attempt to demonstrate continued relevance.
Israeli forces killed two Palestinians, one a 16 year old boy, during an arrest raid on Tuesday in the Aqabat Jaber refugee camp near the West Bank city of Jericho. The Israelis, as ever, are claiming that their personnel came under attack and returned fire in self defense.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is accusing the Israeli government of having perpetrated Sunday’s mass shooting at the Shah Cheragh shrine in the Iranian city of Shiraz, the death toll from which now stands at two along with eight wounded. Actually an IRGC spokesperson referred to “numerous foreign intelligence services” having had a hand in the violence, but the Corps’ commander in Fars province referred specifically to Israel. Iranian authorities have also pointed toward an Islamic State role, which of course doesn’t preclude other parties having participated.
A European Union monitoring team reportedly came under hostile fire along the Armenian-Azerbaijani border on Tuesday. There were no casualties and there’s no clear indication as to who did the shooting. Armenian officials accused Azerbaijani forces of opening fire but the Azerbaijani government has denied that claim.
The Taliban on Tuesday marked the second anniversary of its seizure of Kabul with a subdued public holiday and a fair amount of discussion about its gutting of any semblance of women’s rights since retaking power. Believe it or not the Taliban has gotten positive marks from international observers when it comes to reducing corruption and opium production, and Afghanistan is certainly more peaceful than it was during the war (though IS has kept up its attacks). But the Taliban’s suppression of basic rights and the desperate poverty facing most Afghan people (at least some of it the result of Western sanctions) have largely overshadowed those other details.
Thailand’s Move Forward Party announced on Tuesday that it will not support the new coalition forming around its erstwhile political ally, Pheu Thai. Move Forward won May’s parliamentary election, but its attempt to form a government was stymied by the Thai military, which retains an effective veto over politics via the military-appointed Thai Senate. The governing mandate then passed to Pheu Thai, which finished second in May, and the party decided to excise Move Forward from its coalition while negotiating with parties that have military ties. The party still seemed to be counting on Move Forward’s support for its eventual confirmation vote, which is likely to take place later this week or early next week, but it may have enough military backing to overcome this decision. Without at least some level of support from Move Forward, however, a Pheu Thai-led government may struggle to pass legislation.
For the first time, the North Korean government on Tuesday publicly acknowledged that it is holding former (?) US soldier Travis King, who ran across the Demilitarized Zone into North Korea last month. The Korean Central News Agency reported on King’s status, saying that he had “confessed that he had decided to come over to the DPRK as he harbored ill feelings against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the US Army.” There was nothing in the report regarding King’s current status, nor did KCNA go into any detail as to whether or not the North Korean government intends to treat him as a defector or an intruder.
Sudanese politician Malik Agar on Tuesday called for negotiations between the Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces toward ending the conflict they began back in April. Agar is currently serving as the deputy chair of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, a position that had belonged to RSF boss Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo before the RSF’s uprising, so he’s presumably got a fair amount of weight in what currently passes for the Sudanese government. There are currently no talks underway between the combatants and there’s no indication that any talks are on the horizon, though Agar’s comments could signal an openness on the military’s part.
Two of the most powerful militias in Tripoli, the “Special Deterrence Force” and the “444 Brigade,” battled one another on the streets of the city overnight and through much of Tuesday. Their fighting killed at least 27 people and wounded more than 100 others. The Special Deterrence Force apparently detained 444 Brigade commander Mahmoud Hamza on Monday evening as he was attempting to fly out of Tripoli’s airport. It’s unclear why they seized him, but the fighting tapered off by Tuesday evening after they agreed to let him go. Both of the militias are generally aligned with the Tripoli-based “Government of National Union” so this clash may not have any obvious implications for Libya’s overarching political chaos, but presumably this would not have occurred if the country had a functioning government.
Jamaʿat Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Mali, has claimed responsibility for attacking a unit of United Nations peacekeepers in northern Mali’s Tombouctou region on Sunday. No peacekeepers were killed in that incident but a number were wounded, and as a result the UN announced that its forces will withdraw from its nearby base in the village Ber ahead of its previously announced schedule. The UN’s decision to vacate that base is contributing to mounting tensions between Mali’s ruling junta and the Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), which is warning that any government move to seize the facility will be regarded as a violation of the deal that ended the CMA’s 2012 uprising.
Military leaders from the remaining Economic Community of West African States will meet in Ghana on Thursday and Friday to further develop their plans to invade Niger and restore that country’s former civilian government. ECOWAS hasn’t taken a final decision to intervene but it has called up its “standby force,” a military unit that doesn’t actually exist yet, with the intention of restoring “constitutional order” in Niger. Thursday’s meeting was supposed to take place on Saturday, but the bloc decided to postpone so as not to muddy ongoing diplomatic efforts to convince Niger’s junta to step aside. The junta’s announcement that it intends to prosecute ousted President Mohamed Bazoum appears to have dealt a severe blow to those diplomatic efforts, though the African Union is currently trying to mediate a resolution between ECOWAS and the junta.
According to Addis Standard, residents in the West Shewa zone of Ethiopia’s Oromia region are claiming that government security forces attacked two villages in that area on August 10, killing at least 12 people. The Ethiopian government has forces in Oromia to contend with the Oromo Liberation Army rebel group. They are periodically accused of attacking civilians in an effort to undermine the OLA’s support networks.
Russia’s central bank raised its base interest rate by 3.5 points to 12 percent in an effort to arrest the decline of the Russian ruble. The currency traded on Monday at over 100 per US dollar before rebounding to the high 90s. Tuesday’s move caused its value to improve temporarily before it declined again to finish trading in…the high 90s. The ruble’s slow decline over the last several months has had an upside for the Russian government in that it meant more rubles coming in for every dollar in energy revenue Russia was earning, but the bank’s response suggests that authorities have decided the devaluation—which raises costs for ordinary Russians and makes it more expensive for Moscow to prosecute the Ukraine war—is getting out of hand. Perhaps they’re uncomfortable crossing the triple digit threshold for political reasons.
The Russian military bombarded western Ukraine’s Lviv and Volyn oblasts on Tuesday, killing at least three people in a factory in the latter. Several other regions also reported Russian strikes hitting civilian infrastructure. Meanwhile, according to The Wall Street Journal the Biden administration is working to open an alternative route through which Ukraine could export its late-summer/autumn grain harvest:
The U.S. is in talks with Turkey, Ukraine and Kyiv’s neighbors to increase the use of alternative export routes for Ukrainian grain, officials said, after Russia pulled out of an agreement that guaranteed the safety of food shipments across the Black Sea.
The U.S.-backed plan involves increasing capacity for Ukraine to export four million tons of grain a month via the Danube River by October. Much of the grain would be sent down the river and via the Black Sea to nearby ports in Romania and shipped onward to other destinations. Though slower and more expensive, the route would work as an alternative to a Black Sea shipping corridor established last year under an agreement with Russia, Turkey and the United Nations.
The assumption here is that Vladimir Putin is not going to rethink his decision to quit the Black Sea Grain Initiative, though efforts to convince him to do so are continuing with Turkey in the lead. The main concern is probably that the Russian military will intensify its ongoing efforts to render those Danube ports useless via airstrikes.
The Russian government withdrew 22 diplomatic staffers and 23 support staff from Moldova on Tuesday, under orders from the Moldovan government to reduce its total diplomatic staff in the country from 80 to 25. According to Moldovan officials that number would put Russia on par with the number of staff Moldova has at its Moscow embassy. Relations between Russia and Moldova have nosedived since the start of the Ukraine war, in part because of the lingering presence of Russian soldiers in Moldova’s breakaway Transnistria region. Moldovan President Maia Sandu has repeatedly accused Moscow of trying to “destabilize” her country.
Another Ecuadorian politician was murdered on Monday. Pedro Briones, a local official in the Revolución Ciudadana party of former President Rafael Correa and current presidential front runner Luisa González, was killed in Ecuador’s Esmeraldas under unclear circumstances. He’s the second Ecuadorian politician to die violently in less than a week, following the killing of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio last week, and the third in less than a month if we include the assassination of Manta Mayor Agustín Intriago on July 26. A sharp rise in drug trafficking through Ecuador has been blamed for an overall rise in violence in the country over the past few years and it seems likely that at least Villavicencio’s murder has some sort of drug connection.
Finally, World Politics Review’s Charli Carpenter makes the case for Joe Biden to finally declare a climate emergency:
The terrifying and heartbreaking reports from Maui, where wildfires raging through residential neighborhoods killed over 80 people last week, underscores a summer of worldwide climate disasters that are only increasing in intensity. Against this background, U.S. President Joe Biden is facing renewed calls to declare a climate emergency but has been hedging on whether to do so for political reasons. The Biden administration has already declared climate change a national security priority. It is now overlooking an untapped source of political capital that would ease the declaration of a climate emergency: the authority of the U.S. armed forces and its messenger effects with the Republican Party’s electoral base.
The declaration of a national emergency is of course justified and would unlock significant legal powers, including the ability to use three different sets of statutory law to do things like restrict crude oil exports, limit trade and investment in fossil fuels, and pump emergency aid into renewables and sustainable communities. Arguments against doing so center on whether such powers would stand legal scrutiny. Indeed, Republicans are already mobilizing to block attempts to use them in those specific ways. For these reasons, Michael Gerrard, the director of Columbia University’s Center for Climate Change Law, said the declaration of an emergency would be more a “combination megaphone and crowbar” than a magic wand.
But megaphones and crowbars are arguably the very things needed to deal with the burgeoning climate crisis. If anything, Biden should be considering the declaration of a national emergency as part of a wider strategy to truly treat climate change as a national security threat—one that calls for more far-reaching policies involving civic sacrifice and designed to bring the nation together in the same way as if it was at war. This public communication rationale, and not the legal powers a national emergency unlocks, is one of the best reasons to declare one.
Biden has made a start by centering the climate crisis in his National Security Strategy, but failing to declare a national emergency and bring the military into the conversation works at cross-purposes with this framing. National crises generate and require an expectation of strong, centralized action from the executive. Treating the climate crisis as a security priority would be best served by putting the U.S. military front and center in the effort. Its imprimatur, prestige and capacity can be a boost to presidential power in this important domain as well as in political communication with Republicans.
As Carpenter notes, Biden’s reluctance on this front is incongruous with the US military’s own position, as the Pentagon has been arguably the most forthright part of the US federal government in terms of acknowledging that climate change is a) real and b) a huge threat to national security. Of course, that hasn’t stopped the US military and its associated defense contractors from belching out carbon at massive levels, but I guess you can’t have everything.
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