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World roundup: August 17 2023
Stories from South Korea, Sudan, Spain, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
August 17, 1717: Prince Eugene of Savoy’s Habsburg army successfully concludes its month-long siege of Belgrade. The garrison finally surrendered after the Habsburg forces drove off a last-ditch Ottoman attempt to relieve the besieged city. Belgrade became a Habsburg city in the Treaty of Passarowitz the following year, but the Habsburgs were forced to give the city back to the Ottomans in the 1739 Treaty of Belgrade.
August 17, 1945: Rebel leaders Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta issue a proclamation declaring Indonesia’s independence from the Netherlands. The proclamation kicked off the 1945-1949 Indonesian Revolution, and this date is annually commemorated as Indonesian Independence Day.
The Biden administration on Thursday blacklisted two Syrian militias, the “Suleiman Shah Brigade” and the “Hamza Division,” along with a few of their leaders and an Istanbul-based car dealership linked . Both groups are alleged to have committed human rights abuses against Kurdish civilians in northern Syria’s Afrin region. They’re also both part of Turkey’s “Syrian National Army” rebel coalition, and if they have violated the civil rights of any Syrian Kurds they’ve almost certainly done so at the behest of the Turkish government. Turkey is, of course, not going to be sanctioned.
According to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, “militants” are occupying several UN facilities in Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp including a major educational complex that serves more than half of the camp’s students. A couple of weeks ago fighters from the Palestinian Authority’s Fatah party battled fighters from a couple of Islamist Palestinian factions in the camp, and while the fighting has dissipated apparently those groups haven’t retreated from their positions. It sounds like both combatants are at fault here. The fact that they have yet to stand down suggests the violence could easily resume, which could draw in Lebanese security forces and risk a wider conflict.
Israeli soldiers killed a Palestinian militant during a raid in the West Bank city of Jenin on Thursday. Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, the militia affiliated with the Fatah party, later claimed the deceased as one of its members. According to Israeli officials, their forces were attempting to arrest members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad faction and came under attack, at which point they responded in, yes, self defense. One Israeli soldier was apparently wounded. At least one witness is telling a different story, which is that the Israelis rolled up on the soon-to-be-dead man’s house and opened fire without warning. They wound up demolishing the house.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian visited Saudi Arabia on Thursday, where he met with Saudi FM Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and then proclaimed to reporters that “relations between Tehran and Saudi are on the right track and we are witnessing progress.” It’s unclear exactly what they discussed, and Amirabdollahian only characterized the chat as “good discussions over a broad range of issues” so that doesn’t help narrow things down. One thing that apparently was on the agenda was a potential visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who has a standing invitation from King Salman but has yet to act upon it.
The Pakistan Election Commission announced on Thursday that it intends to complete its census-derived redistricting process before holding a new election. Given that an election is by law supposed to take place sometime in November and the redistricting won’t be completed until at least December 14, something has clearly got to give. There’s no question that will be the election date, as the Pakistani government is intent on putting off a vote polling suggests it’s likely to lose. On a related note, Thursday saw the inauguration of the caretaker cabinet that will see the country through the election, however long that might take.
Pakistani authorities have deployed paramilitary police units to a predominantly Christian neighborhood in the city of Faisalabad in an effort to tamp down inter-communal violence there. Crowds of Muslims attacked several churches in the area on Wednesday amid claims that two Christian residents had desecrated a copy of the Quran. There’s been no indication of any casualties but the property damage may be severe and more than 100 people have been arrested.
The United Thai Nation Party of outgoing Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha announced on Thursday that it will join the emerging coalition led by the Pheu Thai party. This should put that somewhat unwieldy collection of 12 parties over the line in terms of security a majority in the 500 seat Thai House of Representatives, and given Prayut’s standing within the Thai military this may also win the coalition enough support in the military-appointed Senate to get it through a confirmation vote. Another military-aligned party, Palang Pracharath, has also indicated a willingness to support Pheu Thai though it has not joined the coalition.
Joe Biden is hosting South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio at Camp David for a summit he’s hoping will put the finishing touches on their diplomatic rapprochement. Kishida and Yoon have in recent months made substantial progress in overcoming lingering disputes stemming from the Imperial Japanese occupation of Korea. The US government has been watching gleefully, because better Japanese-South Korean relations means a tighter alliance against both North Korea and, more importantly, China. Biden will be looking to continue and intensify the process. The summit also marks a milestone for Biden’s presidency, in that it’s the first time he’s hosted world leaders at Camp David. The presidential retreat of course has a long diplomatic history.
Human Rights Watch and United Nations human rights experts on Thursday accused Sudan’s Rapid Support Forces of serious human rights violations with respect to women and girls in the Darfur region, including widespread sexual violence. Among other evidence, HRW says it catalogued 78 claims of rape by RSF fighters in Darfur between late April and late June. The conflict between the RSF and the Sudanese military has revived the Arab vs. non-Arab violence that characterized the Darfur Genocide in the early 2000s, in which the RSF’s Janjaweed predecessors were the prime mover. These reports of RSF sexual violence reinforce earlier claims made by HRW and other human rights NGOs and start to convey the extent of the atrocities.
Economic Community of West African States members sent their defense ministers to Ghana on Thursday for another round of meetings regarding their potential military intervention to oust Niger’s junta. ECOWAS Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace, and Security Abdel-Fatau Musah said that the bloc has a commitment to participate in an intervention from all of its members save for Cape Verde and the three ECOWAS states beside Niger that are currently under military rule—Burkina Faso, Guinea, and Mali. There is as yet no indication when ECOWAS’s intervention force might be ready so nothing is decided, but there’s no indication that the bloc is backing down rhetorically and no indication of any substantive diplomatic engagement between it and the junta.
The Nigerian military has released casualty information related to the crash of one of its helicopters in Niger state during a battle between security forces and armed bandits late Sunday and into Monday. The helicopter, which witnesses say was shot down by the militants during the engagement, was evacuating carrying dead and wounded soldiers. There’s no indication that anyone survived the crash, which killed 14 people. Overall that means at least 36 Nigerian personnel were killed in the battle.
US Africa Command announced on Thursday that its forces had carried out an airstrike in Somalia’s Galmudug state on August 15 that killed five al-Shabab fighters. According to AFRICOM’s statement the strike was carried out in conjunction with the Somali military, whose forces were engaged with al-Shabab in the area. The Pentagon’s “initial assessment” is that the strike did not cause any civilian casualties, which is true of all of its initial assessments after incidents like this.
According to the Interfax news service, a Russian-born US national named Gene Spector has plead guilty to spying charges and faces upwards of 20 years in Russian prison as a result. He was already in prison as a result of a corruption conviction last year. The US government has not thus far declared him “wrongfully detained” as it has with other US citizens in Russian custody like reporter Evan Gershkovich, but the spying charge could trigger a change in approach to his situation.
According to The Washington Post the US intelligence community is projecting that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will miss its intended mark:
The U.S. intelligence community assesses that Ukraine’s counteroffensive will fail to reach the key southeastern city of Melitopol, people familiar with the classified forecast told The Washington Post, a finding that, should it prove correct, would mean Kyiv won’t fulfill its principal objective of severing Russia’s land bridge to Crimea in this year’s push.
The grim assessment is based on Russia’s brutal proficiency in defending occupied territory through a phalanx of minefields and trenches, and is likely to prompt finger pointing inside Kyiv and Western capitals about why a counteroffensive that saw tens of billions of dollars of Western weapons and military equipment fell short of its goals.
Ukraine’s forces, which are pushing toward Melitopol from the town of Robotyne more than 50 miles away, will remain several miles outside of the city, U.S. officials said. U.S., Western and Ukrainian government officials interviewed for this report spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military operations.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.
The anonymous “US officials” are setting the Ukrainians up to take the blame for this failure, which they’ll attribute to Kyiv’s unwillingness to accept massive numbers of casualties as it threw its soldiers against established Russian defensive positions. The fact is that the US military itself would never have undertaken this operation without establishing air superiority and then using that air superiority to weaken those Russian positions before any ground units attempted to advance. Despite knowing that the Ukrainian military did not and could not establish air superiority over the Russians, “US officials” advised their Ukrainian counterparts to go ahead with the operation anyway. If it does fail they’ll own a large part of that failure.
In other Ukraine news:
The cargo ship Joseph Schulte, which departed Odesa on Wednesday using the commercial shipping channel the Ukrainian military says it has opened in the Black Sea, successfully arrived at Istanbul on Thursday. Its safe passage may convince the operators of other ships currently stuck in Ukrainian ports to make a break for it, though it’s still unlikely that any new ships are going to enter the Black Sea absent guarantees of safety.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday signed off on a bill extending Ukraine’s state of martial law and military mobilization through at least the middle of November. While understandable, given the circumstances, the extension probably eliminates any lingering chance that Ukraine will hold its next parliamentary election by the end of October as currently scheduled.
In what could be a preview of a forthcoming government confirmation vote, Spain’s Congress of Deputies on Thursday elected Socialist Party MP Francina Armengol as its new speaker. The Socialists, who finished second in last month’s parliamentary election, cobbled together an ad hoc coalition including the leftist Sumar alliance and several small regional parties including Catalan separatists. Armengol’s election shows that if the Socialists can keep that group together (which admittedly may be a big “if”) they’ll have enough votes to confirm a cabinet. The conservative People’s Party, which technically won the election but appears now to have no path to forming a government, saw its speaker nominee finish a distant second.
The International Rescue Committee’s Haitian affiliates are shutting down their aid operations amid reports of what Reuters called “extreme violence” in Port-au-Prince over the past several days. In a statement, the IRC said the violence is “affecting neighborhoods where the IRC collaborates with local organizations to provide vital services.” The number of aid groups willing to operate in Haiti seems to be declining as what’s left of public order continues to erode. The IRC’s decision is likely to bolster calls for an international intervention targeting the criminal gangs responsible for much of the unrest.
Finally, the revelation that Niger’s coup includes several officers known to have participated in US military training programs has reignited a debate over possible connections between those programs and political unrest. While the Pentagon insists that its training is designed to increase participants’ appreciation for “liberal norms,” The Intercept’s Nick Turse reports on research that suggests otherwise:
The Pentagon is confident that “no correlation” exists between its instruction and U.S. trainees conducting coups, but recent scholarship complicates that view. In a 2022 study, Renanah Joyce, an assistant professor of politics at Brandeis University and a former Defense Department analyst, evaluated the Armed Forces of Liberia, which the United States rebuilt from the ground up following a devastating civil war. She found that, along with technical, tactical skills, the U.S. training program also “heavily emphasized liberal norms, socializing the Liberian military to respect human rights and civilian authority.”
Employing an inventive experiment that involved a survey, Joyce discovered that when faced with competing “liberal norms,” U.S.-trained soldiers prioritized military cohesion over human rights and democratic principles. When Joyce put Liberian soldiers to the test, she found “respondents with U.S. training were significantly less likely to express willingness to prioritize human rights,” as well as “somewhat less likely to express absolute support for democracy and somewhat more likely to express support for army rule.” In contrast, those “without U.S. training were significantly less likely to express support for one-party rule.”
“U.S. training too often imparts tactical and operational skills that can make military forces more competent without simultaneously making them more professional or subordinate to civilian authority because the training fails to address or transform institutions,” Joyce told The Intercept, while emphasizing that different programs target different segments of the military and impart different skills. “Good tactical training that occurs in the context of weak, corrupt, or illiberal institutions — political and military — is likely to do no good and may do harm.”
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