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World roundup: August 3 2023
Stories from Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Colombia, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
August 3, 1940: An Italian army crosses from Italian East Africa into British Somaliland, beginning an invasion that will end with Italy’s annexation of the colony on August 19. Britain organized a counterattack, Operation Appearance, which began on March 16, 1941, and ended with the British recapture of Somaliland on April 8. Following World War II, Britain assumed control over Italian East Africa, and eventually the former British and Italian Somalilands gained independence and merged into Somalia. Nowadays the territory of British Somaliland, under the name “Somaliland,” considers itself independent of Somalia, though that claim is not recognized internationally.
August 3, 1960: Having expressed its intention to leave the neocolonial “French Community” the previous month, the government of Niger gains full independence. Annually commemorated as Nigerien Independence Day.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Yet another Islamic State leader has come to a premature end, apparently, as the group announced via Telegram on Thursday that “Abu’l-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurayshi” had been killed in a clash with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham fighters in Syria’s Idlib province. There was no indication in the announcement as to when he was killed, so this account may align with the Turkish government’s claim that its intelligence operatives killed the erstwhile IS boss in Syria earlier this year. I know officially Turkey and HTS aren’t working together, but unofficially may be a different story. “Abu’l-Hussein,” The Gang’s fourth leader, had taken over from “Abu’l-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi” when the latter was reportedly waxed by rebel fighters in Syria’s Daraa province back in November. Islamic State’s new leader is one “Abu Hafs al-Hashemi al-Qurayshi.” This of course is not his real name and at this point I’m not even sure it actually refers to a real person.
Interim Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati reportedly told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a phone call on Thursday that he will send his army into southern Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp unless Palestinian militants within that camp stop killing one another. Lebanese security forces as a rule stay out of Palestinian refugee camps, but that hands off approach comes with the assumption that the people in those camps will co-exist peacefully. Such has not been the case since Sunday, as the PA’s Fatah party has been battling a couple of Islamist groups. Casualties number in the dozens at least (with at least 13 killed), and some 20,000 people have been displaced in a camp that is already overcrowded as it is. The situation seems to have calmed down somewhat on Thursday but it’s impossible to know whether that’s going to hold.
The Saudi government announced on Thursday that it will continue its 1 million barrel per day cut in oil production through at least the end of September. The Saudis instituted the cutback last in a gambit intended to increase global oil prices, and for the most part it appears to be working. Prices have risen from the mid $70s per barrel to the mid $80s. The Saudis view $80 per barrel as the minimum sustainable price and will want to see sustained prices above that level before they consider ramping up production again.
The US military, in its infinite wisdom, may begin “putting armed personnel on commercial ships traveling through the Strait of Hormuz” in an effort to discourage Iranian ship seizures in that region. As the AP notes this “would be an unheard of action,” probably because it’s so irresponsible that nobody else would think to do it. Yes, this idea could deter Iranian operations against commercial shipping, but then again it could also wind up causing a war. I for one am excited to find out which. The US is in the middle of a major military buildup in the Gulf anyway, so the risk of conflict is rising even if this idea doesn’t come to fruition.
Friday’s scheduled vote to confirm a new Thai government has been postponed, after the country’s Constitutional Court decided on Thursday to hear an appeal over parliament’s decision to deny the Move Forward party a second confirmation vote after it lost its first one. The outcome of the court case is probably irrelevant, as Move Forward’s coalition didn’t have the votes to win confirmation anyway, but apparently the judicial proceeding takes precedence anyway.
Outgoing Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen responded on Thursday to critics of last month’s essentially uncontested parliamentary election, which his Cambodian People’s Party won handily, and of his decision to retire and hand his post over to his son, Hun Manet. He defended the dynastic succession as a way to avoid “bloodshed” should he die in office without a clear heir. Once Hun Manet assumes office on August 22, Hun Sen’s plan is to make himself president of the Cambodian Senate, a position that would allow him to serve as acting head of state if necessary and would allow him to maintain a substantial level of control over Cambodian governance.
Responsible Statecraft’s Alex de Waal sees an emerging regional dynamic to Sudan’s internal conflict:
The middle powers of the Middle East are talking peace even while they are arming their favored clients. The theory is that when one side gains a clear battlefield advantage, the other will sue for peace. It’s a high-risk approach.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and his Turkish counterpart Recip Tayyip Erdogan are lining up in support of the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and its leader, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, who is increasingly backed by the old-guard Islamists who held power under the long reign of President Omar al-Bashir. In doing so, they are setting aside longstanding differences over the Muslim Brothers — Turkey supports them, Egypt suppresses them.
Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nayhan, president of the United Arab Emirates and the ruler of Abu Dhabi, has made the opposite bet. He has supported General Mohamed Hamdan Dagolo, known as Hemedti, the leader of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and, according to some reports, is still supplying him with weapons. Hemedti impressed bin Zayed with his energetic leadership, especially of the paramilitaries he provided for the Saudi-Emirati ground war in Yemen, and his opposition to the Muslim Brothers — famously, the Emirati ruler’s bête noire. Hemedti also has a mutually profitable business trading gold to UAE.
The Italian energy firm Eni has revoked the “force majeure” status it had imposed on three Libyan natural gas sites, two on land and one offshore. Eni stopped working on those sites nine years ago due to Libya’s near total breakdown in security, but Thursday’s announcement presumably means the company feels that it is safe to start exploration again. Libya’s National Oil Company was also involved in the decision.
Jihadist militants attacked a military convoy in Mali’s Ménaka region on Thursday as it was possibly on its way to Niger. The casualty count is unknown but thought to be “heavy,” according to AFP. It’s unclear what the convoy was supposed to be doing but Mali’s ruling junta has pledged military support to its new counterparts in Niger in the event of a regional military intervention, so perhaps the convoy was carrying aid of some kind to that country.
Hundreds of people reportedly demonstrated in Niamey on Thursday in support of Niger’s new junta and in opposition to sanctions imposed by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) bloc. Some of the protesters waved Russian flags, though there is as yet no indication that Niger’s new leaders are planning to seek Russian and/or Wagner Group support as the Malian junta did.
They have exhibited a fair amount of anti-French animus, which is not terribly surprising, and on Thursday the junta suspended French public news outlets France 24 and Radio France Internationale. It also announced that it has “terminated” the mandates of the French, Nigerian, Togolese, and US ambassadors. ECOWAS sanctions already appear to be taking an economic toll, but the bloc’s sanctions also took economic tolls on Mali and Burkina Faso without managing to reverse the coups in those countries. That’s why the possibility of a regional military intervention cannot be ruled out, though ECOWAS officials insist nothing has been decided on that front.
Last week’s coup has been met with a certain amount of incredulity in the West that wasn’t there after the Malian and Burkinabé coups. There’s a sense that Niger was The Good One in this Sahelian triumvirate and that former President Mohamed Bazoum was governing The Right Way, so there was no obvious reason why Nigerien security forces should move against him. World Politics Review’s Chris Olaoluwa Ògúnmọ́dẹdé suggests this sentiment is erroneous:
To begin with, tensions between Bazoum and the army’s top brass and senior Defense Ministry officials, many of whom were appointed by [former President Mahamadou] Issoufou, as well as between Bazoum and Issoufou, who has remained influential in Niamey, were well-known to Nigeriens. As I noted in a WPR briefing last year, Bazoum’s anti-corruption drive and move to consolidate his grip on power after a failed coup attempt days before he was sworn in antagonized senior military leaders and drew the ire of some civil society groups for their perceived heavy-handedness. Perhaps out of a desire to take on the big challenges he promised, Bazoum centralized decision-making in his office and, more broadly, did little to discourage the concentration of political power in the Nigerien presidency.
A veteran politician whose tenure as interior minister under Issoufou from 2016 to 2021 was characterized by widespread impunity for Nigerien security forces, Bazoum was also ushered into power by a controversial election in which a popular opposition candidate was barred from running and that featured allegations of electoral malpractice. The protests that followed were marred by at least two deaths, many more injuries, mass arrests and widespread destruction of property. Bazoum’s approval of the redeployment of French and European troops to Niger after they were ordered to leave Mali drew opposition among sections of civil society and the public, and his administration’s harsh crackdowns on public protests against the rising cost of living and the security partnership with France likely did little to assuage their concerns.
Even the claims of an improved security landscape in Niger are open to debate, with a report by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies—which is affiliated with the U.S. Defense Department—finding that Niger saw a 43 percent increase in violent events in the past year. But beyond the vagaries of statistical analysis, many Nigeriens do not believe that their lives have necessarily become safer and more prosperous, and seemingly favorable comparisons with the recent past or their neighbors are no consolation.
The Russian government has designated the Norwegian government as “unfriendly” in response to its alleged mistreatment of Russian diplomatic staff. Norwegian authorities expelled 15 Russian diplomatic staffers from the country in April, accusing them of spying. Moscow expelled 10 Norwegian staffers in response. Thursday’s designation limits Norway to employing 27 local Russian staff at its diplomatic offices.
The three Baltic states—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—jointly announced on Thursday that their governments are working to disconnect from the Russian energy grid and connect with the European alternative by February 2025. All three had previously planned to make the shift by the end of 2025, but the war in Ukraine has apparently sped up the timetable.
The European Union on Thursday blacklisted 38 Belarusian individuals and the state petrochemical firm Belneftekhim. EU officials cited the Belarusian government’s crackdown on its political opponents following the country’s August 2020 presidential election and Belarus’s support for Russia in explaining the new sanctions. The bloc also expanded its Belarusian export controls.
Russian shelling damaged another major Ukrainian landmark on Thursday, this time St. Catherine’s Cathedral in Kherson. That church used to be the resting place of Russian Prince Grigory Potemkin, of “Potemkin village” fame, but the Russian military removed his remains last year when it controlled Kherson. While obviously of secondary concern compared with the human lives lost in this conflict, the war is taking a heavy toll on Ukraine’s cultural heritage.
The six month ceasefire between the Colombian government and the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN) group officially began on Thursday. This ceasefire is the most significant achievement to date for President Gustavo Petro’s efforts to end Colombia’s myriad militant conflicts. On Wednesday, the United Nations Security Council voted to continue and expand a UN Colombian monitoring mission to track potential ceasefire violations, and the government and ELN are expected to hold another round of talks later this month with the aim of going beyond the ceasefire to a durable peace deal. Much of ELN’s animus is directed at rival militant groups rather than the government, so there are questions as to how much this agreement will actually reduce overall levels of violence.
Finally, TomDispatch’s Karen Greenberg digs in to the recent UN rapporteur report on the US prison camp at Guantánamo Bay:
A notable distinction between this report and those that preceded it is the access the special rapporteur was granted by the Biden administration. It was, in fact, the first visit ever to Guantánamo by an independent U.N. investigator. After two decades in which administration after administration placed severe restrictions on journalists as well as non-governmental and international organizations when it came to covering that prison, the Biden administration granted [UN rapporteur Fionnuala] Ni Aoláin remarkably full access “to former and current detention facilities and to detainees, including ‘high value’ and ‘non-high value’ detainees.”
The interviews she conducted with those still imprisoned there were both confidential and unsupervised. She was allowed to deal with “military and civilian personnel, military commission personnel, and defense lawyers.” She also “interviewed victims, survivors, and families of victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, former detainees in countries of resettlement or repatriation, and human rights and humanitarian organizations.” Ni Aoláin commended the Biden administration for allowing such unprecedented access. “Few states.,” as she puts it, “exhibit such courage.”
In the process, she drew a uniquely sweeping picture of Guantánamo — from the period after the horrifying 9/11 attacks through the widespread and gruesome torture of prisoners at CIA black sites to the grim details of detention at Gitmo itself to the often unjust and harmful fates of the detainees who were finally released to the persistent challenges that lie ahead. It’s the first report to tie together, historically as well as legally, the many grim pieces of the post-9/11 story that have previously been underappreciated.
Like its predecessors, Ni Aoláin’s report reiterates the sins of Guantánamo: the physical and psychological abuse and outright cruelties committed there and the lack of any access to justice for its prisoners. She also reminds us that “the vast majority of the men rendered and detained there were brought without cause and had no relationship whatsoever with the events that took place on 9/11.” She calls out the United States for its widespread ongoing violations of human rights and international law and mentions numerous times that the way it dealt with its detainees amounted to “cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.”
Her report, however, also potentially shifts the never-ending discussion of Guantánamo to new ground.
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