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World roundup: August 21-22 2023
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Niger, and elsewhere
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TODAY (AND YESTERDAY) IN HISTORY
August 21, 1415: Portuguese forces under King John I and his son Henrique, the future “Prince Henry the Navigator,” capture the city of Ceuta from the Moroccan Marinid dynasty. Ceuta was the first possession in what would become the Portuguese Empire and served as a staging ground for the Portuguese to capture several other cities around the northwest African coast. It’s a Spanish city today—Madrid kept it after the 16th-17th century Iberian Union broke apart.
August 21, 1791: Slaves in Saint-Domingue attend a Vodou ceremony in the evening and afterward begin a mass uprising. This insurrection marked the start of the Haitian Revolution, the most successful slave revolt in the Americas. Haiti won its independence from France, effective on January 1, 1804. The impact of the revolution on slavery in the Americas continues to be a matter of scholarly debate, but at the time the uprising so terrified US slaveholders that the Jefferson administration imposed an embargo on Haiti that remained in place until 1862.
August 22, 1864: An international convention held in Geneva produces a treaty outlining humane “rules” of war, including provisions for the treatment of sick and wounded soldiers. That treaty would subsequently be amended and expanded four times and is the basis of the First Geneva Convention, which was adopted along with the other three Geneva Conventions in 1949.
Russian airstrikes in northwestern Syria’s Idlib province killed at least 13 people including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighters on Monday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Several other people were wounded, some seriously, so the death toll may rise. Two more Russian strikes late Tuesday reportedly killed at least two people. Also on Monday, an Israeli airstrike near Damascus wounded one soldier according to Syrian media.
Anti-government protests are continuing and there are indications that the unhappiness is spreading out of its original nexus in southern Syria. The demonstrations so far have not been large, but with no respite for the languishing Syrian economy in sight the potential for escalation is significant.
Israeli forces killed a Palestinian teenager on Tuesday during an arrest raid in a town outside the West Bank city of Jenin. As ever, the Israelis are claiming self defense. The previous day, Palestinian gunmen killed one Israeli and wounded a second near Hebron. Israeli authorities have arrested two people in connection with that incident. And The New Arab is reporting that Israeli forces opened fire on a crowd of Palestinian demonstrators near the Gaza fence, wounding at least 18 of them.
UNITED ARAB EMIRATES
The Wall Street Journal suggests that the UAE has been one of the big winners of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine:
A year and a half into the Ukraine conflict, few countries have capitalized on the economic opportunities quite like the United Arab Emirates, giving Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war effort a lift while boosting this Persian Gulf state.
Banks here are poaching talent from Moscow to manage a gusher of Russian money. Dubai traders are moving more Russian oil and gold than ever before. And Russian buyers fuel this city’s real-estate boom, often dealing in cash.
UAE officials insist they’re not flouting sanctions are are in fact regularly communicating with officials in the US and the European Union to ensure compliance. The US government seems to be giving the Emiratis some leeway as long as they stick to the basic letter of the law, sanctions-wise—which, for example, means the UAE is able to import Russian crude as long as it adheres to the US/EU Russian oil price cap.
Human Rights Watch, citing an unnamed “Saudi government source,” is claiming that Saudi security forces last year killed some 430 Ethiopians attempting to enter the kingdom from Yemen. It’s possible many of these deaths may have occurred amid armed conflict between the Saudis and northern Yemeni rebels, though the rebels are accusing the Saudis of intentional attacks on asylum seekers and some of the deaths have occurred since the rebels and Saudis established a ceasefire last April (most appear to predate the ceasefire, to be fair). Saudi officials have dismissed HRW’s report as “unfounded and not based on reliable sources.” The Ethiopian government says it intends to investigate HRW’s claims with Saudi authorities.
The Iranian military says it’s developed a new drone, the “Mohajer-10,” that looks an awful lot like the US MQ-9 Reaper and has enough range to strike targets in Israel. It’s unclear whether the Iranians have had access to a Reaper or its schematics and in fairness it’s unclear whether this new drone does what the Iranians say it does. Iran has yet to use any of its supposed long-range drones in combat and it’s probably best for everybody that they keep it that way.
Elsewhere, the US government has finally offloaded some 800,000 barrels of oil from an Iranian tanker, the Suez Rajan, that it seized back in April. It’s taken this long to get the oil off of the ship in part because the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been threatening to retaliate against any shipping company that participated in the seizure. The delay generated some criticism from within the US Congress toward the Biden administration for appearing to give in to that IRGC threat. The offloading may add to an already tense environment in the Persian Gulf, where the US military has been increasing its presence in response to alleged Iranian threats to commercial shipping.
According to the United Nations, the Afghan Taliban has carried out at least 218 extrajudicial executions, involving people who worked in some capacity for Afghanistan’s previous government, since it retook power two years ago. If accurate, or even partially accurate, this would undermine the Taliban’s claim that it had granted a general amnesty to such individuals. Afghan officials are still insisting that the amnesty is official policy and say they will investigate any claims of non-adherence by their security forces.
Pakistani authorities say that Indian forces shot and killed a civilian near the Line of Control in Kashmir on Monday. They termed the shooting “unprovoked” and to my knowledge there’s been no response from Indian officials. On Tuesday, meanwhile, Pakistani Taliban militants attacked a security convoy in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, killing at least six soldiers. Four attackers were also killed.
Thailand finally has a government, more than five months after May’s general election. A coalition led by the Pheu Thai party, with businessman Srettha Thavisin at its head, won confirmation on Tuesday with 482 votes in the combined 750 seat Thai parliament. New Prime Minister Srettha’s eclectic coalition appears to have a majority in the House of Representatives, though its ability to pass legislation is yet to be seen given its apparent lack of ideological cohesion. In advance of the confirmation vote, Pheu Thai figurehead and former PM Thaksin Shinawatra returned to Thailand for the first time since he fled prosecution back in 2008, two years after a military coup ended his premiership. He was immediately arrested and in theory is looking at an eight year prison sentence, but it seems likely he returned with the understanding that his sentence would be shortened.
A new Cambodian government under first time Prime Minister Hun Manet officially took power on Tuesday when it won unanimous confirmation in the Cambodian National Assembly. Hun Manet takes over for his father, Hun Sen, who stepped aside following last month’s election. Hun Sen is likely to remain Cambodia’s de facto leader, as he’s planning to have himself made president of the Cambodian Senate and has reserved the right to take over as PM again should Hun Manet stumble on the job.
The North Korean government has informed Japan that it is intending to conduct a space launch sometime in the next week or so. This probably means another attempt at putting a spy satellite into orbit, following their most recent failed effort in May. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has made getting a spy satellite into orbit a core national security objective. All North Korean space launches draw criticism from South Korea and Western governments for arguably violating UN restrictions on Pyongyang’s ballistic missile program.
The Sudanese military and the Rapid Support Forces have spent the past three days battling over control of the military’s Armored Corps base in Khartoum. RSF fighters reportedly all but seized the base on Monday but the military regrouped and pushed them back on Tuesday. Apart from this base the military’s only other remaining position in the capital is the army headquarters, so it’s likely to put up a considerable fight before it cedes control to the RSF. There have been reports of civilian casualties but no specific figures are available.
An apparent jihadist attack targeted a National Guard unit in southwestern Niger’s Tillabéri region on Sunday, killing at least 12 people. After a decline in the frequency of such incidents over the first half of 2023, militants may be trying to exploit the upheaval caused by last month’s coup to escalate their operations.
The African Union on Tuesday suspended Niger’s membership in response to said coup, but it stopped short of endorsing a potential military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States to restore civilian rule. Instead the bloc’s Peace and Security Council called for an “assessment” of the potential “implications” of such an operation. It’s unclear whether ECOWAS would be prepared to go forward with an invasion without AU support. What is clear is that ECOWAS isn’t pleased with the Nigerien junta’s offer of a three-year transition back to civilian governance. This is not surprising—ECOWAS is still demanding a restoration of the pre-coup government, after all, and precedent from Mali and Burkina Faso suggests The Gang will insist on a two-year transition at most.
Meanwhile, ECOWAS sanctions—in particular the Nigerian government’s decision to cut its export of electricity to Niger—are taking a serious toll. The UN, for example, is reportedly running emergency generators across Niger to preserve at risk vaccine stockpiles. A large convoy carrying basic goods entered Niger from neighboring Burkina Faso on Sunday, but that route is unsafe due to jihadist violence and that corridor is unlikely to become a stable lifeline for Nigeriens.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
The Central African Republic’s Constitutional Court on Monday confirmed the results of last month’s constitutional referendum. The results will, among other things, allow President Faustin-Archange Touadéra to run for another term in 2025. So at least he’s got that going for him.
The Ethiopian government is apparently planning to organize a referendum to determine the status of the territory currently known as the western part of the Tigray region. That area has been disputed by the Tigray and Amhara communities for decades, and Amhara regional security forces occupied it during the Ethiopian government’s 2020-2022 war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Ethiopian Defense Minister Abraham Belay referred to the Amhara occupation as an “illegal administration” in a Facebook post on Tuesday and said it would be dissolved ahead of the referendum, the date of which has yet to be determined. Abraham is Tigrayan but remained loyal to the federal government during the TPLF conflict and there’s no reason to believe that he’s speaking out of turn now.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Militants attacked three villages in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province on Monday, killing at least 23 people. There’s no confirmation as to the attackers’ identity but local officials seem to be pointing the finger at the Allied Democratic Forces militia.
Zimbabwean voters are headed to the polls on Wednesday for a general election whose headline race is shaping up to be a rematch of the 2018 presidential election between incumbent Emmerson Mnangagwa and challenger Nelson Chamisa. Despite a very weak economy the result is likely to be the same as it was then—a narrow Mnangagwa win under suspicion that the vote was rigged.
Leaders from the BRICS member states (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) gathered in Johannesburg on Tuesday for the start of their three-day summit. Well, most of them anyway. Russian President Vladimir Putin is not attending, largely because of his indictment by the International Criminal Court. As South Africa is an ICC member state, authorities would technically be obliged to arrest Putin if he were to turn up. Several countries have applied for membership in the bloc and The Gang is aiming to reach some sort of consensus about expansion by the end of the summit, though there are reportedly serious internal disagreements on that subject. They’ll also discuss ways to reduce the US dollar’s global prominence, though a Brazilian proposal for a common BRICS currency has apparently already been nixed.
Ukrainian media is hailing “Ukrainian saboteurs” for recent drone strikes that hit two Russian airbases, one on Saturday and the other on Monday, destroying at least two Russian bombers. The strikes hit the Soltsy air base in northwestern Russia’s Novgorod oblast on Saturday and the Shaikovka air base in southwestern Russia’s Kaluga oblast on Monday. Both are pretty far from the Ukrainian border, with Soltsy in particular being located some 700 kilometers away.
Russian shelling reportedly killed at least three people in two villages near the eastern Ukrainian city of Lyman on Tuesday evening. Ukrainian officials, meanwhile claimed earlier in the day that their forces had entered the village of Robotyne in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia oblast. At last check the battle for control of the village was ongoing. If the Ukrainians were to take it that would put them closer to seizing the town of Tokmak, which would be the most significant gain they’ve made in their two month counteroffensive.
Speaking of the counteroffensive, the narrative in US media, fed by unnamed individuals inside the US government, has shifted abruptly in recent days from “everything’s fine, just be patient” to “the Ukrainians are fucking everything up.” The New York Times dutifully helped sell the new narrative on Tuesday:
Ukraine’s grinding counteroffensive is struggling to break through entrenched Russian defenses in large part because it has too many troops, including some of its best combat units, in the wrong places, American and other Western officials say.
The main goal of the counteroffensive is to cut off Russian supply lines in southern Ukraine by severing the so-called land bridge between Russia and the occupied Crimean Peninsula. But instead of focusing on that, Ukrainian commanders have divided troops and firepower roughly equally between the east and the south, the U.S. officials said.
As a result, more Ukrainian forces are near Bakhmut and other cities in the east than are near Melitopol and Berdiansk in the south, both far more strategically significant fronts, officials say.
American planners have advised Ukraine to concentrate on the front driving toward Melitopol, Kyiv’s top priority, and on punching through Russian minefields and other defenses, even if the Ukrainians lose more soldiers and equipment in the process.
These ass-covering pieces all boil down to the same message, which is that US officials can’t understand why the Ukrainians aren’t willing to get more of their soldiers killed charging into Russian minefields and making themselves easy targets for Russian airstrikes. Again it’s worth noting that the US military would never undertake an operation under these conditions, and while that comparison only gets you so far it’s still an indictment of the US approach to this counteroffensive in general and to the casualty issue in particular. Tuesday’s movement in Robotyne may indicate that the Ukrainians are taking this particular criticism to heart and are putting more assets into the southern front. But barring a sudden and at this point unexpected breakthrough I would expect this stream of “don’t blame us, blame the Ukrainians” pieces to continue.
Spanish King Felipe VI has reportedly given the People’s Party and its leader, Alberto Núñez Feijóo, first crack at forming a government following last month’s election. This was to be expected, as the People’s Party emerged from that election as the largest in the new parliament with control of 137 seats. But the party is thought unlikely to attract enough additional support to get to a majority of 176 seats in the Congress of Deputies. Feijóo’s only path to a majority comes via some sort of arrangement with the far-right Vox party, but Vox is so noxious to the smaller regional parties in the chamber that it’s unlikely enough of them will offer their support to get Feijóo to that majority. Assuming the People’s Party fails to form a government, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his Socialist party will get a chance. Sánchez’s chances of achieving majority support are probably better than Feijóo’s, though it’s no lock for him either.
As expected, Ecuador’s presidential election on Sunday ended indecisively, meaning the top two finishers will head to a runoff on October 15. Leftist candidate Luisa González “won” the first round with around 33 percent of the vote, in line with polling. Her opponent in the second round will be Daniel Noboa, who significantly outperformed his polling to take 24 percent of the vote. Both the relatively small margin of González’s win and the fact that Noboa was the runner-up are surprises. That may put Noboa in position to attract enough additional support to win the runoff, but there’s been no head-to-head polling yet as far as I know.
Voters also decisively opted to stop oil exploration projects in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park, which is a designated UNESCO biosphere reserve and home to Indigenous Ecuadorian communities. Outgoing President Guillermo Lasso had been keen to drill in the park but the referendum should in theory put an end to those plans.
Anti-corruption candidate Bernardo Arévalo won Sunday’s Guatemalan presidential runoff, taking somewhere around 60 percent of the vote to handily defeat former First Lady Sandra Torres. Incumbent President Alejandro Giammattei congratulated Arévalo via social media, which may suggest his government is not planning on trying to undo this result the way it attempted to do with Arévalo’s second-place finish in June’s first round. Torres, however, has apparently not acknowledged the result yet and she could be preparing some sort of challenge.
Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s Jim Lobe reports on a new study that argues for a radical rethinking of the US government’s military-centric approach toward interacting with African states:
The recent series of military coups across the Sahelian region should prompt a major reassessment of U.S. military and security assistance to fragile African states, according to a new report by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs that calls for a much greater focus on improving governance.
“Military action might suppress the problem of terrorism, but it will not relieve the underlying conditions that feed it,” according to the report. “Only improved governance can address these grievances, which means good governance is the foundation for long-term stability.”
“It’s time to flip the script,” argue the report’s authors. “US policy in Africa has for too long prioritized short-term security to the detriment of long-term stability by prioritizing the provision of military security assistance. Yet this strategy has neither produced security in Africa nor reduced threats to the United States and its interests.”
Among other recommendations, the 67-page report, entitled, “Less is More: A New Strategy for US Security Assistance to Africa,” which includes several case studies, calls for “rein[ing] in its use of security assistance with partners that fail to demonstrate commitment to the reforms necessary to build long-term stability.” And it worries that the new paradigm of “great-power competition” between the U.S. and Russia or China could result in even greater reliance on military assistance.
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