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World roundup: August 31 2023
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Gabon, Chile, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
August 31, 1907: Britain and Russia sign the Anglo-Russian Convention, which closes arguably the last chapter in their “Great Game” rivalry in Asia, at least until the 1917 Russian Revolution. The two empires, having already agreed to mark Afghanistan as the frontier between their domains, further agreed to divide Iran into spheres of influence (Russian in the north, British in the south), to recognize Afghanistan as part of Britain’s sphere of influence, and not to interfere in Tibetan affairs. There’s a case to be made that the Cold War brought the “Great Game” back, but historians generally mark that as something different and consider the true Great Game to have ended with this convention.
August 31, 1957: The Malayan Declaration of Independence is proclaimed by Tunku Abdul Rahman, then-Chief Minister of the Federation of Malaya. The declaration acknowledged the end of the British protectorate over the nine Malay states that made up the federation. This date is annually commemorated as Malaysian Independence Day, but there is a bit of controversy about that because Malaysia didn’t come into existence until 1963, when the former British colonies of North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore joined the federation (Singapore left a couple of years later). Some folks in North Borneo and Sarawak take issue with their “independence day” commemorating an event that took place before they were part of the country.
An airstrike in southern Syria’s Suwayda province on Thursday destroyed a facility that opposition activists called a “drug factory” and state media termed a farm on Thursday. There’s no indication of casualties and no official word as to who carried out the strike though all indications point toward the Jordanian military. The Jordanians probably carried out a similar attack in Suwayda back in May and are very keen to try to interdict drug trafficking from Syria.
The United Nations Security Council on Thursday extended the mandate of its southern Lebanese peacekeeping force for at least another year. A dispute over the wording of the extension resolution between the French government on one hand and the US and UAE governments on the other was apparently resolved with a compromise. The final French-written resolution retains language allowing the peacekeepers to conduct “announced and unannounced patrols,” after the French delegation had excised that language from an earlier draft, but it also includes a requirement that the peacekeepers coordinate their activities with Lebanese authorities. In practice this is probably incoherent—the peacekeepers can’t very well coordinate unannounced patrols with authorities ahead of time—but this way at least everybody saves face.
At Responsible Statecraft, Temple University’s Sean Yom argues that US security assistance is helping to make the Jordanian monarchy more repressive and less stable:
By helping to maintain [Jordan’s] political infrastructure, the United States is complicit in the continued economic and social stagnation of Jordan. For every dinar that the Jordanian leadership spends on security or military items — money that many Jordanians feel it does not have to spend — the less money there is to spend on, say, social programs or economic development.
If you look at the Jordanian economy, it is astounding how much of a crisis that it has fallen into. We’re looking at, right now, 22 to 23 percent unemployment overall, which is probably a vast understatement of the real statistic. We’re looking at nearly 50 percent youth unemployment. We’re looking at poverty, which is between 25 to 30 percent depending upon which estimate we take as reliable. And this is all in a country that also spends approximately a third of each annual budget on military and security spending. So essentially, what you’re looking at when you think about the Jordanian economy today is a wartime economy. The Jordanian government positions itself and maintains an army as if it were about to wage a war it doesn’t have to wage, and that has a destructive effect on the economy and often justifies draconian security measures to regulate and police society. The United States, I would argue, is complicit in that arrangement.
Washington has had very similar experiences in the past with other countries where regimes have some kind of deep economic or political crisis, and yet they believe that having a well-armed coercive apparatus is going to immunize them from any sort of domestic unrest or popular overthrow. Now, that may be the case in Jordan, because the future is hard to tell. But that certainly wasn’t the case in, say, Iran under the Shah. It wasn’t the case in South Vietnam. It wasn’t the case in some of our Central American client states in the 1970s and the 1980s.
An apparent car ramming attack at a checkpoint between Israel proper and the West Bank on Thursday has left one Israeli soldier and the Palestinian driver of the vehicle dead. The driver reportedly rammed a group of soldiers with his truck, killing one and injuring three others as well as four bystanders, then attempted to flee. Israeli soldiers intercepted and killed him at another nearby checkpoint in the West Bank.
The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week that the Saudi government is in talks to resume funding the Palestinian Authority. The Saudis tapered off and eventually stopped supporting the PA in 2021, ostensibly over concerns about corruption. Now they may be hoping to buy PA approval for normalizing relations with Israel. Supposedly the Saudis have assured PA officials that they won’t “accept any deal with Israel that undermines efforts to create an independent Palestinian state,” which ignores the inconvenient truth that normalizing relations with Israel right now would ipso facto undermine efforts (such as they are) to create an independent Palestinian state. The PA would obviously welcome a new stream of Saudi cash, which among other things could help them arrest their slow collapse in the West Bank. But while getting PA approval might help the Saudis sell normalization to their domestic audience, it’s not going to mean anything to the Palestinian people because the PA has almost no political credibility anymore.
It’s possible the PA could try to strike a hard bargain with the Saudis, insisting on tangible statehood-related concessions from the Israelis in return for supporting normalization. But the PA has very little leverage here and Mohammed bin Salman can easily push away from the table, tell them to get bent, and normalize relations with Israel on his own terms without suffering much if any political damage, particularly inasmuch as he’s largely unaccountable to his own subjects.
The Iranian government on Thursday accused Israel of attempting to sabotage its ballistic missile and drone programs. According to Iranian officials, Israeli intelligence operatives have been selling faulty electrical parts to Iranian manufacturers that could explode, damaging key components of those weapons. Without knowing the merits of this particular allegation, it is an open secret (or not even really a secret) that the US and Israeli governments are interested in sabotaging Iranian weapons production and have tried to do so in the past. The US impetus for doing so has likely intensified now that Iran is providing arms to Russia.
The Afghan government announced on Thursday that it had signed seven new mining deals worth a potential $6.5 billion. All the deals are with “local” firms, and I put local in quotes because they’re really cutouts for firms in China, Iran, and Turkey. Assuming any of these projects actually come to fruition, they could provide a major jolt to the collapsed Afghan economy. That’s a big assumption, however. Under ideal conditions it could take years for these efforts to start producing ore and, suffice to say, Afghanistan does not offer anything close to ideal conditions.
A suicide bomber struck a military convoy in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Thursday, killing at least nine soldiers and wounding more than 20. There’s been no claim of responsibility as far as I know, but it seems likely this was a Pakistani Taliban operation.
The Chinese government released a new map highlighting its South China Sea claims earlier this week, and it’s apparently gone over like the proverbial lead balloon among other countries in the region. The new map differs a bit from China’s traditional “nine-dash line” map of the region, which claims virtually the entire South China Sea and thus overlaps with the claims of several littoral states, in that it adds another dash and also includes Taiwan. Aside from the Taiwanese government it’s sparked criticism from the governments of Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
Niger’s ruling junta on Thursday revoked French ambassador Sylvain Itté’s diplomatic immunity and ordered its security forces to expel him from the country. Last Friday the junta gave Itté 48 hours to leave the country but he did not, with French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday rejecting the junta’s legitimacy and therefore its authority to expel foreign diplomats. It’s unclear whether Macron is planning any response to Itté’s forcible ejection.
The African Union on Thursday suspended Gabon’s membership, following Wednesday’s coup that removed President Ali Bongo from power. This does not appear to have caused the junta to close up shop, and in fact it’s making plans to inaugurate leader Brice Oligui Nguema as Gabon’s new interim (I guess?) head of state on Monday.
International response to this coup seems to be lagging a bit, which may be due to “coup fatigue” and/or the fact that Bongo doesn’t make for a particularly sympathetic champion of democracy. The Economic Community of Central African States has issued a condemnation and says it plans to hold a meeting to discuss the situation in Gabon, but couldn’t even give a date when that meeting is supposed to take place. The junta, meanwhile, looked to potentially short circuit any serious international backlash on Thursday when it announced that it intends to “respect all commitments” both domestically and abroad. That’s vague enough to mean anything or nothing, but it might be enough to allay foreign concerns and buy the junta some time.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The death toll connected with Wednesday’s anti-UN protest in Goma has risen from around ten to at least 48, with some 75 others wounded. Congolese officials were apparently obfuscating the severity of the violence, but AFP was able to obtain an internal military document that offered the higher casualty count and also said that at least 168 people were arrested. Those figures align with estimates from protest organizers.
Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan is in Russia this week, where he’s apparently aiming to revive the Black Sea Grain Initiative. Good luck with that. After meeting with Fidan on Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insisted that Moscow will only return to that accord if it receives “assurances” that Russian food exports will be protected from Western sanctions. The US and company are unlikely to provide those assurances, as they continue to insist that Russian food exports already are protected from sanctions even as the Russians argue that broader banking sanctions are having (ostensibly unintended) effects on the food sector. Western officials accuse the Russians of lying about that, which doesn’t seem to leave much room for negotiating a resolution. Russian officials are pushing an alternative under which they would sell a supply of grain very cheaply to Turkey and Turkey would then distribute that grain worldwide, but that’s a very tiny band-aid on a gaping wound.
According to The Wall Street Journal, Ukrainian forces have managed to open small breaches in Russian defensive lines south of the village of Robotyne in Zaporizhzhia oblast. If the Ukrainians can expand any of those breaches they could exploit it to potentially speed up their advance on the town of Tokmak, a logistical hub on the road to Melitopol. That’s a tall order given Russia’s air and artillery advantages but it is something to watch as Ukraine’s counteroffensive grinds on.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky claimed via Telegram on Thursday that the Ukrainian military has developed a new long-range strike weapon, without offering an explanation. The Ukrainians have undertaken a couple of seemingly large scale drone operations in the past week, including Friday’s drone swarm in Crimea and Wednesday’s attack that involved strikes on multiple Russian provinces. I have no idea if there’s a connection between those operations and what Zelensky was talking about but it seems reasonable to speculate that there is.
UK Defense Secretary Ben Wallace resigned on Thursday to spend more time devoting an unreasonably large portion of his family’s budget to military spending. He’ll be…missed? Speculation is that Energy Secretary Grant Shapps is his likely replacement, which would trigger a small reshuffling of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s cabinet.
UPDATE: Sunak has indeed named Shapps as his new defense secretary.
A few days ago, the Biden administration declassified two documents related to the US role in Chile’s 1973 coup. The Nation’s Peter Kornbluh says that they won’t be enough to satisfy the Chilean government:
On August 25, the Central Intelligence Agency quietly posted on its website two documents on the military coup in Chile that had been kept top secret for half a century: the President’s Daily Brief (PDB) for the morning of the September 11, 1973—the day of the coup—and for September 8, 1973, as the Chilean military finalized its plans to overthrow the democratically elected government of Socialist Salvador Allende. The newly released documents proved almost impossible to find and read on the CIA website, buried among dozens of other previously declassified PDBs. Eventually, the State Department sent out a press advisory providing the links. The release of the PDBs was “in accordance with our commitment to increased transparency,” according to the press release. “We remain committed to working with our Chilean partners to try and identify additional sources of information to increase our awareness of impactful events throughout our shared history.”
As the 50th anniversary of the coup approaches, that commitment will be tested as Chileans, and their government, seek to obtain additional classified documents on the US role in undermining democracy and supporting dictatorship in Chile. This week a delegation of Chilean congressional representatives from the Socialist Party met with US Ambassador Bernadette Meehan to lobby her for release of the remaining secret records on Chile; earlier this month, the Chilean Congress voted almost unanimously to request that the Foreign Ministry solicit still-secret records on US “intervention in Chile’s sovereignty before, during and after the coup of 1973.” And the Chilean government of Gabriel Boric has already appealed to the Biden administration for a special, 50th-anniversary gesture of declassification diplomacy. “We still don’t know what President Nixon saw on his desk the morning of the military coup,” as Chile’s ambassador to Washington, Juan Gabriel Valdés, stated in an interview before the PDBs were released. “There are details that remain of interest to [Chileans], that are important for us to reconstruct our own history.”
No fewer than four car bombs exploded in various parts of Ecuador late Wednesday and into Thursday morning, apparently (and fortunately) without causing any casualties. Two of the blasts occurred in Quito, while the other two took place in El Oro province, bordering Peru. Authorities connected the two Quito bombings to a number of recent prisoner transfers related to the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio earlier this month, but do not yet appear to have commented on the two El Oro blasts.
Finally, a new report from the International Crisis Group outlines the reasons why US sanctions frequently make it harder, not easier, to resolve conflicts:
As U.S. sanctions proliferated, however, so did concerns about their collateral effects. In the realm of conflict resolution, practitioners – including scholars, members of civil society and U.S. officials – saw evidence of sanctions compromising peace efforts. They sometimes undercut peace negotiations, particularly when conflict parties came to doubt that the U.S. would ever reverse them. They could prove stubbornly intractable, even after conflicts came to an end, and cast a shadow over political transitions, humanitarian operations and stabilisation efforts. They complicated the work of organisations trying to reconcile populations divided by conflict and help former belligerents find their footing in the post-conflict order. The U.S. Treasury authorised the activities of these organisations in certain cases, but these permissions did not fully set things right, in part because its licensing powers did not reach the full range of U.S. sanctions. Also, even when legal constraints were addressed, private companies and NGOs worried about reputational risks and compliance costs.
The reasons why sanctions pose obstacles to peace efforts are multi-faceted, but three main problems stand out. First, U.S. sanctions are sticky: they are hard to change, ease or lift because of domestic politics and bureaucratic inertia. In particular, the political pressures surrounding decisions to ease or rescind sanctions mean that presidents may be loath to incur the costs that such decisions may entail, including fear of alienating members of Congress whose support they need to advance other priorities. Secondly, Washington has no system for comprehensively assessing sanctions’ harms or effectiveness – and thus the U.S. cannot gauge whether they are helping or hurting efforts to achieve the peace and security goals in whose name they have been launched. Thirdly, as sanctions have proliferated, they have become increasingly complex, making them hard to disentangle or reform. Sanctions have become less likely to sway conflict parties, who have no faith that the penalties will be lifted – or the effects alleviated – if they make concessions.
As the report notes, the Biden administration has made some gestures at resolving some of these issues, though they’re relatively small potatoes. Of course the underlying assumption, which is that US policymakers actually want sanctions to contribute to conflict resolution, can and should be called into question.
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