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World roundup: August 24 2023
Stories from Syria, Japan, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
August 24, 410: A Visigothic army under Alaric sacks Rome. This was the first time the city had been sacked by a foreign army since the Gauls did so around 800 years earlier and is considered one of the milestones in the collapse of the empire in the western Mediterranean.
August 24, 1516: The Battle of Marj Dabiq
In a report released Thursday, the fund said that fossil fuel companies globally benefited from $13 million in subsidies per minute last year, despite being the main cause of the climate crisis. That's $7 trillion for the whole of 2022. The IMF said that fuel price reform and reforming fossil fuel subsidies would dramatically cut down deaths from air pollution and climate change.
The report found that “explicit subsidies” — undercharging for supply costs — have more than doubled since the last IMF assessment in 2020, when they amounted to $500 billion. In 2022 they stood at $1.3 billion.
How exciting for those companies! They really deserve it. Subsidies in the Middle East and North Africa region doubled between 2020 and 2022, as they did in Europe as well largely due to concerns related to the war in Ukraine. Concerns related to climate change are, I guess, not part of the equation.
Anti-government protests are spreading out of southern Syria, with reports this week of demonstrations in northern Syria’s Aleppo province and eastern Syria’s Deir Ezzor province. Al-Monitor has more on what’s driving the protesters:
Recent government actions have heightened discontent among Syrians. Seeking to lower the deficit, the government in Damascus lifted fuel subsidies last week, causing a jump in price.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, said that Syrians are angry that the living situation has not improved with the decreased fighting in the country in recent years.
“People are desperate,” Landis told Al-Monitor. “There’s no electricity, food prices are outrageously high, salaries are low. It’s a perfect storm. Things have gotten much worse since the end of the fighting, if we can call it that. People were expecting things would get better.”
As Landis goes on to say there’s little likelihood of these protests turning into a bigger challenge to the government, a la the Arab Spring protests in 2011. The resulting civil war has emptied out that particular cupboard.
Two Turkish drone strikes killed at least seven suspected Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters in northern Iraq’s Erbil province on Thursday. The strike coincided with a visit from Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan to Erbil city, where he met with officials in the Kurdistan Regional Government. Fidan stopped by on his way home from Baghdad, where he pressed the Iraqi government to designate the PKK as a terrorist group.
Members of United Nations Security Council, minus China and Russia, issued a joint condemnation of the “unrelenting violence” in Myanmar on Thursday. The statement placed the onus on Myanmar’s ruling junta to end its war against the country’s various rebel groups. There statement comes amid a push for a new UNSC resolution on Myanmar to supersede the resolution the council passed last December, but if there were any chance of the council adopting a really meaningful resolution that might impact the junta it would likely be vetoed by China and/or Russia.
The Japanese government began releasing wastewater from its wrecked Fukushima nuclear power plant into the Pacific Ocean on Thursday. Japanese officials insist that the water has been sufficiently treated so as to render it harmless and they got approval from the International Atomic Energy Agency before going forward, but the reaction to the release among other East Asian countries has not been particularly jovial. The Chinese government, for example, instituted a ban on imports of Japanese seafood and the Hong Kong government followed suit, which is a huge economic blow given that China and Hong Kong account for more than 40 percent of Japan’s seafood export market. The North Korean government also criticized the release. The South Korean government has not condemned the move officially but there have been protests in the vicinity of the Japanese embassy in Seoul.
The International Organization for Migration’s latest National Displacement Report, which is current through June, estimates that some 4.38 million Ethiopians have been displaced due primarily to armed conflict. Over 1 million of those were displaced just in the Tigray region, which makes sense given that the region is still recovering from the Ethiopian government’s 2020-2022 war against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front. Drought has also been a major driver of displacement, particularly in Ethiopia’s Somali region.
Gabonese voters will head to the polls for a general election on Saturday, with President Ali Bongo Ondimba seeking a third term that would keep him in office through at least the end of this decade, barring any unforeseen complications. Bongo won reelection in 2016 by a slim margin that may not have been entirely legitimate, an outcome that sparked post-election violence in which at least four people were killed. Concern is high that this vote is going to end in similar fashion. On the merits Bongo’s lackluster economic record would seemingly put him in difficult shape heading into the vote, but that assumes there won’t be any irregularities in either the election or the vote count.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The Biden administration on Thursday blacklisted six people allegedly contributing to the M23 conflict in the eastern DRC. Four of the six are Rwandan nationals, consistent with the US position that the Rwandan military has been providing support to the militants. One is an M23 fighter while the sixth is a member of the Congolese armed forces.
The BRICS leadership summit in Johannesburg wrapped up on Thursday with a surprise flurry of activity, as The Gang invited six countries to join the club—Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. This meeting was expected to tackle the issue of BRICS expansion, but pre-summit commentary seemed to hint at internal disagreements on the issue and a likelihood that perhaps one or two countries might be granted membership—assuming members found consensus on expanding at all. All six invitees will officially take membership on January 1.
For an institution that portrays itself as the developing world’s answer to Western-dominated global institutions like the World Bank and the IMF, adding these six new members greatly expands BRICS’ position in the so-called “Global South.” In particular, adding four Middle Eastern states—including two bona fide economic heavyweights in Saudi Arabia and the UAE—is going to shift the bloc’s geographic orientation significantly. I have not seen any indication that the bloc intends to make any governance changes to accommodate the new membership, though that may be in the offing since operating on consensus (as BRICS currently functions) is a lot easier with five members than it is with 11.
Geopolitically there’s a case to be made that these additions will make it harder for Russia and China to turn BRICS into an explicitly anti-Western institution, since other than Iran all the new states have vested interests in retaining close ties with the West in general and the US in particular. But economically these new additions should boost efforts to use BRICS to create alternative channels for commerce that lie outside the purview of the US-dominated global financial system. Heavily sanctioned Iran and Russia would especially benefit from that sort of thing.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on Thursday about the apparent death of Wagner Group boss Yevgeny Prigozhin in Wednesday’s plane crash. Referring hilariously to Prigozhin as a “talented businessman,” Putin’s tribute made sure to note the “serious mistakes” the erstwhile mercenary boss had made in his life. One of those, presumably, was his attempted mutiny back in June. Whether that particular mistake wound up leading to his death is the subject of continued speculation, with theories about what actually caused the crash including a Russian antiaircraft missile and a bomb stashed aboard the jet. Similarly unclear is the fate of Wagner, as several of the organization’s senior leaders were on the plane with Prigozhin. The Russian government is unlikely to simply allow the organization to dissolve, as it was still working on a number of gigs (particularly in the Middle East and Africa) that benefited Russian foreign policy. Some kind of managed transition, either to the Russian military or a new pseudo-private company controlled by the Russian military, seems like the most probable outcome.
Elsewhere, Russian authorities on Thursday extended the pre-trial detention of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich for another three months, through at least November 30. The Biden administration says it is pursuing a prisoner exchange involving Gershkovich, but Russian officials have indicated that no deal would be possible until after his trial—a trial they keep delaying. And the Biden administration blacklisted 11 Russian nationals and two entities referred to as “re-education facilities” involved in the allegedly forced relocation of thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia. This is the same allegation over which the International Criminal Court has indicted Putin. Russian officials have insisted that they’re relocating the children to Russia in order to “save” them.
Latvian President Edgars Rinkēvičs on Thursday designated Welfare Minister Evika Siliņa as his new candidate for prime minister. Siliņa would replace Krišjānis Kariņš, who resigned earlier this month when his coalition balked at a proposed cabinet reorganization, which was a symptom of deeper internal fissures. Siliņa is a member of Kariņš’s New Unity party but it remains to be seen whether she’ll be able to put the previous coalition back together, or form a new coalition that will allow her cabinet to win a confirmation vote.
Ukrainians held subdued independence day celebrations on Thursday amid Russian airstrikes across much of southern and eastern Ukraine that killed at least one person and wounded 16 more. The Ukrainian military marked the occasion with what it called a “special operation” in Crimea overnight that saw them land troops on the western part of the peninsula. Details on the operation haven’t been made public but Ukrainian officials claim the incursion was successful, however they’re defining “success” in this case.
Elsewhere, Norway on Thursday became the third NATO member, after Denmark and the Netherlands, to promise to send F-16s to Ukraine. Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre made the announcement but didn’t specify how many F-16s he’d be sending nor what timetable he envisioned for delivery. He did say the total number would probably be fewer than ten. More F-16s may be forthcoming but we’ll see. The Pentagon, meanwhile, announced that it will begin training Ukrainian pilots and maintenance personnel on the F-16 in the US starting next month. Previously US officials had suggested they’d only be open to doing that if European governments were unable to handle the training load.
Low water levels are causing new delays for ships attempting to transit the Panama Canal. Wait times to enter the canal have spiked and there are upwards of 120 vessels waiting in line at present, up from around 90 in normal conditions though admittedly fewer than the 160 who were idling there earlier this month. El Niño and climate change have combined to make this a particularly dry year in the canal zone, hence the drop in water levels. Canal operators as a result have had to impose tighter restrictions on the number of ships passing through the canal per day and on the size of those ships. The delays are increasing just in time to wreak havoc with the holiday shopping season
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an agency of the Organization of American States, issued a statement on Thursday calling on Guatemalan authorities to protect President-elect Bernardo Arévalo and Vice President-elect Karin Herrera in the face of apparent death threats against them. The commission cited “at least thee sources within the government” who have warned of at least one specific threat against their lives. The Guatemalan government and Arévalo have both said they are coordinating protection efforts.
Finally, TomDispatch’s Rebecca Gordon considers the ongoing legacy of the now 100 year old Henry Kissinger:
Henry Alfred Kissinger turned 100 on May 27th of this year. Once a teenage refugee from Nazi Germany, for many decades an adviser to presidents, and an avatar of American realpolitik, he’s managed to reach the century mark while still evidently retaining all his marbles. That those marbles remain hard and cold is no surprise.
A couple of months after that hundredth birthday, he traveled to China, as he had first done secretly in 1971 when he was still President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser. There — in contrast to the tepid reception recently given to U.S. officials like Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry — Kissinger was welcomed with full honors by Chinese President Xi Jinping and other dignitaries.
‘That ‘lovefest,'” as Daniel Drezner of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy wrote at Politico, “served the interests of both parties.” For China, it was a signal that the United States would be better off pursuing the warm-embrace policy initiated so long ago by Nixon at Kissinger’s behest, rather than the cold shoulder more recent administrations have offered. For Kissinger, as Drezner put it, “the visit represents an opportunity to do what he has been trying to do ever since he left public office: maintain his relevancy and influence.”
Even as a centenarian, his “relevancy” remains intact, and his influence, I’d argue, as malevolent as ever.
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