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World roundup: August 29 2023
Stories from Myanmar, Sudan, Russia, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
August 29, 1526: The Battle of Mohács
August 29, 1842: Britain and Qing China sign the Treaty of Nanking, ending the 1839-1842 First Opium War. China was obliged to pay reparations to Britain and Hong Kong became a British colony, which it remained until 1997. The treaty also ended China’s “Canton System,” which had forced all foreign trade to run through the port city of Guangzhou (Canton) and was the means by which the Chinese government controlled those foreign commercial interactions, and forced the Qing to accept unequal conditions on Chinese-British trade.
Continued fighting between the Kurdish-controlled Syrian Democratic Forces militia and the formerly SDF-affiliated “Deir Ezzor Military Council” has claimed at least 13 lives, according to AFP. The Deir Ezzor militia’s commander, Ahmad al-Khabil, remains in SDF custody. The group hasn’t offered an official justification for arresting Khabil but AFP, citing the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and “an activist,” suggested that his smuggling activities may be part of the story. Aside from the obvious issue this creates for the US, which now has two of its proxies feuding with each other, the violence could exacerbate Arab-Kurdish tensions in eastern Syria.
Elsewhere, Aleppo’s international airport reopened for business on Tuesday. It would appear those Israeli airstrikes on Monday that closed it down did not damage the facility’s runway all that severely.
A French soldier deployed with Iraqi security forces was killed on Monday during a counter-terrorism operation against an Islamic State position in Iraq’s Saladin province. Four other French soldiers and two Iraqi soldiers were wounded in that operation when IS fighters attacked their unit.
Cairo has pinned high hopes on its BRICS membership to attract new foreign investment to ease its ongoing economic crisis, exacerbated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine last year.
Egypt continues to struggle with a shortage of hard currency that has snowballed since the start of this year amid skyrocketing inflation, which hit 38.2% in July.
The crisis has caused the Egyptian pound to lose nearly 50% of its value against the dollar since March 2022 in a series of steep devaluations. The dollar shortage also made it harder for the government to repay its debts, prompting it to seek assistance from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in the form of a $3 billion loan program.
The Islamabad High Court on Tuesday suspended former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s three year prison sentence and released him on bail. Khan is appealing his recent corruption conviction on the grounds that he was denied the chance to mount a proper defense, and his lawyers had requested a suspension of the sentence pending a ruling on his appeal. Despite Tuesday’s ruling, however, Khan remains in government custody because another court has ordered his arrest in a state secrets case. That case relates to a Pakistani diplomatic cable relaying comments from a senior US State Department official seemingly encouraging the no confidence vote that removed Khan from office last year. Khan cited the document as proof of his assertion that the vote was orchestrated by the US government.
A new report from the United Nations Human Rights Office alleges that hundreds of thousands of people across Southeast Asia have been forcibly trafficked into “scam centers” and made to participate in various online, well, scams—crypto fraud, sketchy gambling outfits, etc.—while being badly mistreated. According to the UN this problem is especially widespread in Myanmar, where an estimated 120,000 people have been trafficked, and Cambodia, where some 100,000 people have suffered likewise. The Cambodian government questioned the accuracy of the UN’s estimates. These appear to be private criminal enterprises rather than state operations, targeting primarily at-risk migrants. It’s not terribly surprising that those sorts of groups would thrive in the chaos wrought by Myanmar’s civil war.
Two bombings in southern Thailand’s Pattani province killed two people and wounded four others on Monday evening. The attacks were presumably connected to southern Thailand’s long-standing Malay insurgency, which has been more or less dormant since early 2018 but does occasionally reemerge with this sort of relatively low level violence.
The US and Palauan governments have reached a new agreement that allows the US Coast Guard to enforce maritime law in Palauan waters without any Palauan officials present. Palauan President Surangel Whipps Jr. hailed the deal in a press release from the Coast Guard on Tuesday, saying it would help his government “monitor our exclusive economic zone, protect against Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, and deter uninvited vessels from conducting questionable maneuvers within our waters.” Earlier this year Whipps called for greater US involvement in Palauan security issues after what he called the “uninvited” entries of three Chinese vessels into Palauan waters. With many of the Pacific Islands nations up for grabs as the US and China jockey for regional influence, Palau—a Compact of Free Association state that still recognizes Taiwan diplomatically—clearly favors the US.
AFP is reporting that shelling in Nyala, the capital of Sudan’s South Darfur state, killed at least 39 people on Tuesday. It’s unclear from the reporting who was responsible for that shelling. Meanwhile, Sudanese military leader Abdel Fattah al-Burhan made his first trip abroad since the military vs. Rapid Support Forces conflict began in April, visiting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in the town of El Alamein before returning to Port Sudan later in the day. It’s unclear what they discussed and in reality the trip itself was probably the point. Burhan had been bottled up in the army headquarters in Khartoum for more than four months and likely wanted to convince observers that the RSF’s position is weakening and he’s able to come and go as he pleases.
The Coordination of Azawad Movements (CMA), a coalition of former rebel militias in northern Mali, claimed on Tuesday that the country’s military has been bombarding CMA positions in Mali’s Kidal region for the past two days. This is not the first time the CMA has accused the military of striking at its forces in recent months. Relations between the group and Mali’s junta have deteriorated substantially and the 2015 agreement that ended the northern Mali uprising is in danger of collapsing. Adding to the chaos in northern Mali, the UN’s peacekeeping force is on a December 31 deadline to withdraw some 13,000 personnel from Mali and close down its support operations. That’s a huge undertaking in a relatively short period of time and is bound to create localized security vacuums.
The Algerian government jumped into the controversy over last month’s Nigerien military coup on Tuesday, proposing a six-month, civilian-led transition back to democratic governance that would forestall a potential military intervention by the Economic Community of West African States. There’s been nothing from Niger’s junta (which recently proposed a three-year transition) to indicate that it would find that idea acceptable, though Algerian officials have been in contact with Nigerien leaders so they may know something the rest of us don’t.
From ECOWAS’s perspective I could see this meeting the bloc’s approval. It’s not a restoration of Niger’s previous government, but the appetite for military intervention among ECOWAS members doesn’t seem to be especially large so they might welcome a respectable way out of the current impasse. Outside the region, I suspect the US government, which hasn’t even declared Niger’s coup an official “coup” and is clearly hoping the whole thing will blow over, would be thrilled with a resolution like this. The French government would be less thrilled but might see the proposal as the best possible outcome at this point.
According to the UN, fighting between Ethiopian security forces and Fano militia fighters in Ethiopia’s Amhara region has killed at least 183 people since it began earlier this month. Ethiopian authorities have arrested some 1000 people—mostly young Amhara men—under the state of emergency they imposed shortly after the fighting began. Heavy fighting has tapered off somewhat, with federal security forces controlling Amhara’s major towns and cities and the Fano having withdrawn into more remote parts of the region. That said, new violence in the town of Debre Tabor has killed at least four people since Sunday.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Another attack by CODECO militia fighters, this time on a mining region in the eastern DRC’s Ituri province, has left at least 14 people dead with ten wounded and others missing. I’m not entirely clear from the reporting when this incident took place but presumably it was within the last couple of days. CODECO fighters attacked a fishing village in Ituri over the weekend, killing at least nine civilians and one Congolese soldier.
This is very much a developing story, but an apparently large Ukrainian drone operation early Wednesday has targeted at least six Russian oblasts—Bryansk, Kaluga, Oryol, Pskov, Ryazan, and Moscow. Details are very sparse and Russian authorities are insisting that their air defenses shot down most of the drones, but some drones apparently hit the airport in Pskov city, damaging aircraft and causing a major fire.
In keeping with the story above, according to The Economist, a Ukrainian drone strike on Friday that targeted a Russian base in Crimea may have been a sign of things to come:
EARLY IN THE morning of August 25th, a group of drone developers headed to a launch point in southern Ukraine for one of the most daring aerial missions over Russian-controlled territory to date: an attack on a military base deep in Crimea. It was described as a test launch, with many of the prototypes in the drone swarm experimental. But some of them did the job.
There were explosions inside the base and several dead, with wounded soldiers seen streaming into the local hospital, according to local sources. That capped a miserable week for the Kremlin, already struggling to explain more than a dozen drones striking the heart of Moscow, repeated shutdowns of major airports and unexplained explosions at arms factories, airfields, fuel depots and railways.
A source close to the developers of Morok (“dark spirit”), one of the prototype drones used in the Crimean operation, says Ukraine’s new aerial strike capacity is the result of “seeds sown many months ago”. Morok’s development had been a “miraculous” journey: after one risky test launch a few kilometres from the Russian border, its developers escaped incoming Russian rockets by minutes. Now they aim to step up serial production.
The Ukrainians have been limited, primarily by the US, in using Western arms to attack targets inside Russia, and the Biden administration has (so far) refused to supply Ukraine with long-range US artillery ammunition. So the Ukrainians are developing their own long-range strike capabilities, with emphasis on the “kamikaze” drone swarm presumably as a way to overcome Russian air defenses.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian officials said on Tuesday that their forces are continuing to advance beyond the village of Robotyne in Zaporizhzhia oblast, their most recent seizure. There’s been a lot of chatter about a potential Ukrainian breakthrough in this area but there’s been no evidence to support that chatter as yet. If a breakthrough does manifest it will probably happen quickly and suddenly. Russian officials claimed that their forces destroyed four Ukrainian boats carrying upwards of 50 people in the Black Sea. As far as I know that hasn’t been confirmed. And the Biden administration announced another $250 million tranche of military aid for Ukraine, consisting of ammunition and other equipment.
The US military may be preparing to bring its nuclear weapons back to the UK. According to the Federation of American Scientists, the Pentagon has gotten funding for building a new “surety dormitory” at the Royal Air Force’s Lakenheath base in Suffolk. “Surety” is US military jargon referring to the maintenance/security of nukes. The US withdrew its nukes from Lakenheath, and indeed from the UK as a whole, back in 2008. The FAS says there have been other infrastructure improvements at Lakenheath that suggest nukes are coming back, and the US Air Force’s 495th Fighter Squadron, based at Lakenheath, is about to start operating nuclear-capable F-35s.
Finally, TomDispatch’s David Bromwich considers what the war in Ukraine has done to feed the war machine:
The United States has supported Ukraine with copious donations of weapons, troop-trainers, and logistical and technical advisers left to work the interoperable targeting equipment we “share” with that country. Between 2014 and 2022, NATO drilled at least 10,000 Ukrainian troops per year in advanced methods of warfare. In the war itself, weapons supplies have climbed steadily from Stinger and Javelin missiles to Abrams tanks (whose greenhouse-gas environmental footprint is 0.6 miles per gallon of gas, or 300 gallons every eight hours of use), to cluster bombs, and most recently the promise of F-16s.
All this has put fresh wind in the sails of the weapons manufacturers of the American military-industrial-congressional complex. In May 2022, the CEO of Lockheed Martin thanked President Biden personally for his kindness. F-16s, after all, are big money-makers. As for the additional fuel that ordinary Ukrainians require, it is now being sequestered underground by Ukrainian commodities traders at enormous environmental risk.
Wars and their escalation — the mass destruction of human life that is almost invariably accompanied by destruction of the natural world — happen because preparations for war bring leaders ever closer to the brink. So close, in fact, that it feels natural to go on. That was certainly the case with Russia, Ukraine, and NATO, and the escalation that followed. Examples of such escalation are indeed the rule, not the exception, in time of war.
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