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World roundup: August 19-20 2023
Stories from Afghanistan, Sudan, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
August 19, 1745: An Iranian army under Nader Shah decisively defeats a much larger Ottoman army at the Battle of Kars. This, combined with the destruction of a second Ottoman army near Mosul by an Iranian army under Nader’s son, effectively brought the Ottoman-Persian war of 1743-1746 to an end by wiping out the Ottoman offensive. Although he began the war with big goals for defeating the Ottomans, Nader—ill and growing more paranoid about internal threats by the day—opted to settle the conflict with a restoration of Ottoman-Iranian borders as they had been at the fall of the Safavid dynasty.
August 19, 1953: Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh is removed from office in a UK/US-backed coup.
August 19, 1991: A group of Soviet leaders calling themselves “the State Committee on the State of Emergency” undertakes a coup and arrests President Mikhail Gorbachev. The whole thing fell apart three days later under pressure from the Soviet public, rallied by Russian President Boris Yeltsin—who, as a result, became effectively the most powerful person in the USSR. This was such a cataclysmic failure that it led to the collapse of the entire Soviet Union.
August 20 (give or take), 636: The Battle of Yarmouk
August 20, 1988: A ceasefire brings the nearly eight year long Iran-Iraq War to an end. The war cost hundreds of thousands of lives and included some of the most appalling war crimes of the 20th century, all to achieve essentially a restoration of the prewar status quo (except for all the casualties, of course).
Hundreds of people turned out on Sunday across southern Syria’s Suwayda province to continue anti-government protests related to rising prices and a failing economy. The demonstrations have now progressed to a general strike in the predominantly Druze province, which local media characterized as “unprecedented” since the start of the Syrian civil war back in 2011. Small protests have also spread to neighboring Daraa province, which was the seat of the protests that sparked that war. These protests were prompted in part by the Syrian government’s decision to cut fuel subsidies, adding to the country’s cost of living crisis.
According to Hezbollah, a suspect in last month’s bombing near the Sayyidah Zaynab shrine in Syria jumped out the window of a residential building in southern Beirut to his death on Friday while being pursued by Hezbollah fighters. It was all very simple and believable. Leaving the veracity of this story aside what’s really notable here is the complete absence of Lebanese security forces from any part of it. Hezbollah learned that this person had entered the country and pursued him on its own through Friday’s climax. This seems like a job that would have been better handled (or more normally handled, anyway) by police, but that would assume a functioning state and Lebanon definitely does not have one of those these days.
An apparent Palestinian gunman shot and killed two Israelis, a father and son, in the West Bank village of Huwara on Saturday. Israeli security forces undertook a manhunt for the shooter in the nearby city of Nablus but I have not seen any indication as to whether they’ve been successful.
The Washington Post reports on the Taliban’s “first major infrastructure project” since retaking control of Afghanistan:
The morning sun was still rising over the shriveled wheat fields, and the villagers were already worrying about another day without water.
Rainwater stored in the village well would run out in 30 days, one farmer said nervously. The groundwater pumps gave nothing, complained another. The canals, brimming decades ago with melted snow from the Hindu Kush, now dry up by spring, said a third.
Village chief Mohammed Ishfaq threw his hands up. If everyone could hold out for two more years, he said, then the excavators and engineers — hundreds of them already working over the horizon — would arrive. “If we only had that water,” Ishfaq said, “everything will be solved.”
Two years after its takeover of Afghanistan, the Taliban is overseeing its first major infrastructure project, the 115-mile Qosh Tepa canal, designed to divert 20 percent of the water from the Amu Darya river across the parched plains of northern Afghanistan.
The canal could in theory create a massive amount of newly arable land, but there are huge concerns as to whether the Taliban has the capability—financial and technical—to construct and maintain it properly. And whether it does or not, the diversion of that much water out of the Amu Darya is inevitably going to cause tension with the governments of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan downstream.
A bus carrying construction workers to a worksite near the Afghan border in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province struck an improvised explosive device on Sunday, killing at least 11 people. There’s been no claim of responsibility, but given the location the Pakistani Taliban seems the likely culprit.
New polling paints a grim picture for Thailand’s emerging governing coalition. A survey from Thailand’s National Institute of Development Administration finds that 64 percent of respondents oppose what looks like an alliance between the Pheu Thai party and the Thai military. Partly this might have to do with Pheu Thai’s promise, made prior to the election in May, that it would not ally with the military or military-backed parties in any effort to form a government. The Thai military designed the country’s political system to give itself a veto over the government formation process, so realistically any party would have to compromise in this regard. Clearly the Thai public isn’t fond of that.
The Chinese military began a round of military exercises near Taiwan on Saturday that it appeared to characterize as its response to Taiwanese Vice President William Lai Ching-te’s recent stopovers in the United States. Taiwanese and US officials condemned the exercises, with Taipei accusing Beijing of “election interference” given that Lai is a candidate (and probably the favorite) in next year’s presidential race. That said, these drills seem like a relatively subdued response compared with China’s reactions to similar US-Taiwan interactions over the past couple of years.
Fighting between the Sudanese military and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-North rebel faction in and around Kaduqli, the capital of Sudan’s South Kordofan state, has reportedly displaced “thousands” of people over the past couple of months. The SPLM-N, which is trying to take advantage of the military’s ongoing conflict with the Rapid Support Forces, has according to local residents seized at least ten military bases in the province since June and now controls about 60 percent of South Kordofan. Many of the displaced have headed for neighboring North Kordofan state, which has been the scene of heavy fighting between the military and RSF but is still apparently viewed as the safer place to be. The Guardian is reporting that RSF representatives have been meeting with members of both the SPLM-N and the Sudan Liberation Army (which has been active in Darfur and is currently based in Libya) in Ethiopia in recent weeks, though there’s no indication what they’re discussing or whether they’ve made any headway.
The Libyan central bank is now a single institution again, more than nine years after it split into eastern and western branches amid Libya’s civil war. The bank’s governor, Sadiq al-Kabir, announced the reunification on Sunday in Tripoli. Bringing state finances back together isn’t going to heal Libya’s larger political divide on its own but it could prove to be a significant step toward overall unification if it reduces tensions over, say, the distribution of oil revenue.
Unspecified gunmen attacked a village in central Mali’s Mopti region on Friday, killing at least 23 people and looting stores and cattle. There’s been no claim of responsibility but presumably the attackers were jihadists of some variety. Elsewhere, al-Qaeda fighters have reportedly blockaded the city of Timbuktu after the arrival of a Malian military detachment accompanied by “foreign mercenaries” (Russians, most likely). The blockade has been affecting shipments of food into the city.
An apparent jihadist attack in Burkina Faso’s Center-East region on Saturday left at least five police officers dead. According to Burkinabé officials their forces then mounted a counterattack that killed over 40 of the original attackers.
Military leaders from the Economic Community of West African States’ remaining members wrapped up their two-day What To Do About Niger summit in Ghana on Friday having supposedly agreed on a “D-Day” for a military incursion to oust Niger’s junta and restore its former civilian government. While that might sound ominous there’s no indication when this supposed point of no return will be reached, assuming that there is in fact such a point and this isn’t an empty threat. There’s also no indication that ECOWAS’s supposed “standby force” is anywhere close to being ready to invade, despite assurances from the bloc that it could move at any time.
Nevertheless, there were indications over the weekend that the Nigerien junta is, after three weeks of mostly intransigence, suddenly interested in finding a diplomatic accord with ECOWAS:
For starters, the junta finally received an ECOWAS delegation, allowing it to meet not just with junta boss Abdourahmane Tiani but also with ousted President Mohamed Bazoum.
The junta’s civilian prime minister, Ali Lamine Zeine, told The New York Times that “nothing will happen” to Bazoum despite the junta’s stated intention to put him on trial. This seems like an attempt to pacify ECOWAS members concerned about his fate. Zeine also said he sees no indication that the junta is planning to kick Western military forces out of the country and throw in with Russia and/or the Wagner Group, another effort at pacifying international tensions. To be clear, Zeine probably doesn’t speak for the junta, although the junta may be speaking through him.
And Tiani delivered a televised address on Saturday proposing a three year transition back to civilian rule, while condemning ECOWAS for its sanctions and its invasion plan. Three years is going to be one year too long for the bloc, which in previous cases in Mali and Burkina Faso has insisted on two year transitions. But Tiani may have offered it as the basis for negotiations, which would at least delay any intervention and could allow him to stall for time before agreeing to a “two year transition” that winds up being more like three years.
According to Russian authorities, Ukrainian drones attacked targets in Russia’s Belgorod, Kursk, and Rostov oblasts on Sunday, while they brought down another drone near Moscow and briefly shut down that city’s Domodedovo and Vnukovo airports. Five people were reportedly injured in Kursk but otherwise there’s no indication any of the attempted strikes had any effect.
Russia’s Luna-25 lunar rover, the subject of the Russian space program’s first lunar space mission since the then-Soviet program made one in 1976, has apparently crashed into the moon after entering an unstable orbit. The probe was aiming to be the first ever to explore the moon’s south pole, where it’s believed there may be water deposits that could be of use in future missions. An Indian probe is also currently attempting to achieve that feat and may attempt a landing within the next few days.
A Russian missile strike on the Ukrainian city of Chernihiv on Saturday killed at least seven people and left at least 144 others wounded according to Ukrainian officials. The strike apparently hit a central commercial square in the city.
Having received the green light from Washington, the governments of Denmark and the Netherlands over the weekend pledged to deliver an unspecified number of F-16 jets to Ukraine, starting around the end of this year. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen pledged 19 F-16s in total over the next three years, with the first six set to arrive around late December, eight more next year, and five in 2024. The Netherlands has 42 F-16s in its arsenal but its government has yet to decide how many to offer or how quickly to deliver them. It’s still going to take months for the Ukrainians to train and make other preparations to fly and maintain the aircraft and these numbers are too small to make much of a difference in the war anyway, but Kyiv is undoubtedly hoping that other F-16 operators will follow suit and offer their planes as well.
There are two presidential elections in the Americas on Sunday. In Ecuador, the first round of that country’s snap election is almost certain to end inconclusively, as pre-election polling has consistently pointed toward a runoff. Results are only just starting to come in at time of writing, but Luisa González is leading so far which is consistent with pre-election polling. Tensions were high following the assassination of candidate Fernando Villavicencio earlier this month, but the day seems to have passed fairly peacefully albeit with reports of attempted cyberattacks on the country’s electoral systems.
The second election is Guatemala’s runoff, in which polling strongly suggests that Bernardo Arévalo will defeat first round winner Sandra Torres. Arévalo’s anti-corruption message has already seen Guatemalan authorities attempt to disqualify him and dissolve his party following his surprise runner-up finish in the first round, so there is some potential for shenanigans this time around.
Finally, at The Nation the Quincy Institute’s Sarang Shidore looks ahead to this week’s BRICS summit and the bloc’s future plans:
On August 22, South Africa will host the next BRICS summit—bringing together leaders from Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—at a time of acute tensions between the United States and its great power rivals China and Russia. But another context for the meeting is the increased salience of the Global South, most sharply revealed by the nuanced reactions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to the Ukraine war.
The multiple failures of the US-led world order to substantially support two core requirements of Global South states—economic development and safeguarding sovereignty—are creating a demand for alternative structures for ordering the world. The BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) are two major responses to these failures. They are bringing the East and the South together in rooms in which Washington and its core allies are not exactly welcome—even when they invite themselves.
BRICS is often talked about in one of two ways. Some observers dismiss its relevance, even calling for its dissolution. Others take a romantic view of the BRICS being a revival of the hoary days of Southern solidarity—Bandung in the 1950s or the 1970s New International Economic Order. Neither is an accurate picture of what is really happening.
The current moment appears to be the next fork in the road for BRICS, after its foundational years of 2009–10 and the creation of its development finance entity (the New Development Bank) in 2015. Two key items are on the August summit agenda—first, finding a way to trade and invest with one another by circumventing the use of the US dollar and second, admitting new states to the club.
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