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World roundup: August 5-6 2023
Stories from Iran, Niger, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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THIS WEEKEND IN HISTORY
August 5, 1571: The Cypriot city of Famagusta surrenders to the Ottomans, ending a nearly 11 month siege. As the final Venetian-held city on Cyprus, Famagusta’s surrender meant the total Ottoman conquest of the island. What was supposed to be a peaceful handover turned violent when the Ottoman commander, Lala Mustafa Pasha, abruptly had Venetian commander Marco Antonio Bragadin mutilated and taken into custody (and ultimately executed a couple of days later) and then unleashed his soldiers on the residents of the city. It’s unclear why Mustafa did this—he argued that Bragadin had executed his own Ottoman prisoners and murdered a group of Muslim pilgrims, but it may be that he was letting out some pent up frustration that such a small garrison was able to hold off and embarrass his much larger army for so long. The siege prompted the formation of a new “Holy League” alliance that eventually defeated the Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto, though that took place after Famagusta fell.
August 6, 1806: Francis II abdicates and dissolves the Holy Roman Empire as a result of Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz and in the War of the Third Coalition. Luckily he landed on his feet—having already styled himself Francis I of the new Austrian Empire in 1804, he had a very nice golden parachute.
August 6, 1945: The United States drops the first of two atomic bombs on Japan, this one at Hiroshima. The full death toll is difficult to assess because of the nature of radioactive fallout but estimates of over 200,000 are probably within the ballpark.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham rebel group killed at least six Syrian soldiers amid Sunday morning shelling in Latakia province, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The previous day, the SOHR reported that Russian airstrikes in neighboring Idlib province killed at least three civilians and wounded six others.
Speaking of HTS, the group says it had nothing to do with the death of former Islamic State leader “Abu’l-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurayshi.” IS released a statement on Thursday acknowledging his death at the hands of HTS fighters in Idlib. An HTS spokesperson denied that claim “categorically,” pointing out (probably fairly) that had HTS fighters done the deed the group would have been the first to announce the accomplishment. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced back in April that his intelligence operatives had killed the IS boss, and if I had to guess I’d say it was a joint Turkey-HTS operation that HTS agreed to disclaim for appearance’s sake.
A bombing in Yemen’s Abyan province on Saturday killed two fighters affiliated with the separatist Southern Transitional Council. STC fighters retaliated and claim to have killed at least five of the attackers. There’s been no claim of responsibility but the bombing seems likely to have been an al-Qaeda operation.
According to the regional government in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Turkish military killed at least one Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) “military official” via drone strike in Iraq’s Kirkuk province on Sunday. Another PKK fighter was reportedly wounded.
The governments of at least two Arab states, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, are advising any of their citizens who are currently in Lebanon to go somewhere else at their earliest convenience. As far as I know neither gave a reason for the warning but there are strong indications that both governments were motivated by the recent violence involving Palestinian factions in Lebanon’s Ain al-Hilweh refugee camp. I don’t think it’s worth making too much of that situation yet, but the concern reflected in those advisories may not be misguided. Viewed one way, an outbreak of violence involving Palestinian militants in a Lebanon in which central authority has broken down can start to look like history isn’t exactly repeating, but may be rhyming.
Israeli forces killed three Palestinians near the West Bank city of Jenin on Sunday when they opened fire on a car. Israeli officials referred to the vehicle’s occupants as “a squad of terrorists…on its way to carry out an attack” and further suggested that the three were members of Hamas. As far as I know none of those allegations has been corroborated. On Saturday, meanwhile, a Palestinian said to be from Jenin shot and killed a police officer in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv before being killed by another police officer in turn.
The US State Department issued a statement on Saturday condemning the Tel Aviv shooting and also calling Friday’s settler mob attack near Ramallah, in which one Palestinian was killed, a “terror attack.” As ever Washington’s response won’t go beyond rhetoric, but that terminology is something the US government rarely employs with respect to violence on the Israeli side of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Israeli authorities have arrested two settlers in connection with Friday’s attack but the Israeli military already seems to be laying the groundwork for them to claim that they were acting in self-defense amid a “both sides” clash.
Analyst Giorgio Cafiero outlines the natural gas dispute that may be throwing a wrench into the Saudi-Iranian detente:
In recent weeks, Iranian officials have made statements about a massive offshore gas field in the northwestern Persian Gulf that has long fueled tensions among Iran, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Effectively addressing these conflicting claims will require regional energy diplomacy and be an important test for the fledgling rapprochements between Tehran and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).
GCC states refer to the gas field as al-Durra — Arabic for “the pearl” — while Iranians call it Arash. Discovered 56 years ago when maritime boundaries were not well defined in this body of water, the Durra/Arash Gas Field remains a delicate and controversial issue.
On March 21, 2022, Kuwait’s and Saudi Arabia’s energy ministers signed an agreement to develop the field in a joint venture between the Kuwait Gulf Oil Company and the Aramco Gulf Operations Company. Under the deal, the two GCC members are to equally divide the production of the field, which is situated in the Kuwaiti-Saudi Neutral Zone and expected to produce one billion standard cubic feet of gas a day. However, the Iranians, who claim a share of the field west of the Persian Gulf island of Kharg, which accounts for 40 percent of the Durra-Arash Gas Field, blasted the Kuwaiti-Saudi deal as illegal. Tehran’s position is that any arrangement involving production from the field must include Iran.
Iranian officials have indicated that they’re prepared to work with the Saudis and Kuwaitis on jointly exploiting the field. But the Kuwaiti-Saudi view is that the field is entirely within their waters and the Iranians have no claim to any of it.
Pakistani authorities have once again arrested former prime minister and current opposition leader Imran Khan, picking him up on Saturday after a court convicted him of illegally receiving state gifts and sentenced him to three years in prison. This is the second time this year Khan has been arrested, and as before supporters of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party have turned out to protest. Unlike his previous arrest, at least so far those protests have not led to any violence either by demonstrators or police. Khan is accused of selling gifts he received as PM for profit rather than lodging them with the government. There is some reason to expect this verdict to be overturned, particularly as there are questions about the legitimacy of convicting Khan effectively in absentia. Khan has long maintained that the legal cases against him are politically motivated to prevent him from becoming PM again. His party outperforms Pakistan’s current ruling parties in opinion polls.
While we’re on the subject of elections, Pakistan’s next one may be delayed by quite a bit. Law and Justice Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar told reporters on Saturday that the new election, which is supposed to be held later this year, will be organized according to the latest Pakistani census. Right now Pakistan is on track for an election sometime in November, but if the government insists on incorporating the new census findings, a process that includes redistricting, Tarar said that would push the vote back to at least February. Given PTI’s popularity it’s not hard to see why the current Pakistani government would want to delay the election as long as possible, but this isn’t doing much to inspire confidence in the vote’s legitimacy.
Militants killed three Indian soldiers on Friday in southern Kashmir’s Kulgam district. Saturday marked the fourth anniversary of the Indian government’s decision to strip Kashmir of its legal autonomy, so the violence was not unexpected and there may be more in the offing.
The Philippine military is alleging that a Chinese Coast Guard vessel used its water cannon on Saturday to prevent a Philippine naval supply vessel from bringing food and other basic necessities to a Philippine military unit based at the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. The shoal is claimed by both countries and this is not the first time the Chinese Coast Guard has acted to try to impede Philippine resupply. There’s no indication of any casualties.
Nothing especially noteworthy happened in Niger on Sunday. Paradoxically that winds up being noteworthy, in that Sunday was the deadline the Economic Community of West African States had given Niger’s junta to restore the country’s former civilian government. Suffice to say the junta doesn’t seem to be complying.
The bloc’s threatened military intervention has thus far failed to materialize, and while that could change at any moment Al Jazeera is suggesting that ECOWAS has blinked. Member states may be wavering over the possibility of a region-wide conflict, given that the juntas in Burkina Faso and Mali (and possibly Guinea as well) could join any fight on Niger’s side. The main impetus for an intervention seems to be emanating from Nigeria, where new President Bola Tinubu has designs on regional hegemony, as well as from the French government. But Nigerian security forces are bogged down in myriad domestic crises and it’s unclear how much support there is for an intervention among other ECOWAS member states.
In Niger, the junta has been making some preparations for a potential invasion. It closed the country’s airspace on Sunday and made a show of popular support via a rally for its fans in a stadium in Niamey. How many of those fans were hired for the occasion, if any, is unclear. And it has reportedly asked Wagner Group mercenaries in neighboring Mali for assistance. I’m unclear whether that request refers specifically to assistance in defending against ECOWAS or if it means Niger’s new leaders want to procure Wagner’s counter-insurgency “assistance” (in quotes because there’s no evidence Wagner has done anything in Mali but commit atrocities and make the insurgency worse) for the long haul.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
At least nine people were killed in an overnight militant attack on a village in the eastern DRC’s North Kivu province. It’s still not clear who was responsible for the attack but suspicion seems to be running toward the M23 militia. Two of the victims were apparently members of the Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) militia, which makes them likely targets for the Tutsi M23.
The Russian military launched another overnight barrage, firing some 70 projectiles at targets across Ukraine according to Ukrainian officials. One strike on the town of Kupiansk, in Kharkiv oblast, appears to have resulted in multiple casualties but I haven’t seen any specific figures. The Ukrainians say their air defenses downed most of the Russian hardware. The Ukrainian military, meanwhile, reportedly shelled two of the three roads linking Crimea to mainland Ukraine, damaging the Chonhar bridge with a missile strike. Late Friday, a Ukrainian sea drone damaged a Russian tanker in the Kerch Strait, the second Russian vessel damaged by a Ukrainian drone that day. The tanker was apparently a civilian vessel so the legality of targeting it is uncertain.
Weekend “peace talks” in the Saudi city of Jeddah don’t appear to have generated much in the way of momentum toward peace, which is unsurprising given that the Russians weren’t invited. They did, however, secure a statement from the Chinese government in support of further such talks, which suggests Beijing is at least receptive to the general principles behind Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s peace formula. That in itself is a positive development from Ukraine’s perspective.
Finally, The Financial Times reported on Sunday that US researchers were able to replicate a previous success in the area of fusion power:
US government scientists have achieved net energy gain in a fusion reaction for the second time, a result that is set to fuel optimism that progress is being made towards the dream of limitless, zero-carbon power.
Physicists have since the 1950s sought to harness the fusion reaction that powers the sun, but until December no group had been able to produce more energy from the reaction than it consumes — a condition also known as ignition.
Researchers at the federal Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, who achieved ignition for the first time last year, repeated the breakthrough in an experiment on July 30 that produced a higher energy output than in December, according to three people with knowledge of the preliminary results.
The laboratory confirmed that energy gain had been achieved again at its laser facility, adding that analysis of the results was underway.
It very much remains to be seen whether this is going to turn out to be anything more than a scientific curiosity, and even if it leads to something meaningful that outcome is realistically decades away. But I felt like ending tonight on the rare upnote and so that’s what we’re doing. Cheers.
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