World roundup: December 11-12 2021
Stories from Syria, Ethiopia, Haiti, and more
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
December 10, 1877: A Russian army defeats an Ottoman garrison and captures the town of Plevna, in modern Bulgaria.
December 10, 1898: The Treaty of Paris ends the Spanish-American War. Under its terms, Spain agreed to give up its claims on Cuba (which became a US protectorate) and turned Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico over to the United States. It is often considered the end of the Spanish empire, though Spain still held some colonies so that’s not really accurate, and the first emergence of the United States as a major world power.
December 11, 861: The Abbasid caliph al-Mutawakkil is assassinated by his Turkic royal guard in his palace in Samarra. Al-Mutawakkil’s murder was the final straw in the capture of the caliphate by its Turkish slave soldiery and kicked off a 10 year period known as the “Anarchy at Samarra,” during which four caliphs were enthroned and deposed in rapid succession, each backed by some faction of the military. The period ended with the accession of the caliph al-Muʿtamid, who ruled from 870-892 mostly due to the efforts of his brother, al-Muwaffaq, who pacified the Turks and essentially ruled the caliphate from behind the throne.
December 11, 1917: British General Edmund Allenby enters the newly captured city of Jerusalem.
December 12, 627: A Byzantine army under Emperor Heraclius defeats a Sasanian Persian army at the Battle of Nineveh. The Byzantine victory broke the Persian resistance and allowed Heraclius and his army to raid deeper into the heart of the empire. Two months later what was left of the Persian army and the Persian nobility overthrew Emperor Khosrow II, who was already on shaky ground due to the failure of his siege of Constantinople in 626, and so brought to an end the Byzantine-Sasanian War of 602-628. It was the last war the Romans and Persians ever fought against one another, as both empires would soon be confronted by the Islamic caliphate emerging from Arabia.
December 12, 1098: The Crusaders capture Maʿarrat al-Nuʿman
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russian airstrikes killed at least three civilians near the town of Jisr al-Shughur in northern Idlib province on Friday. As with most single-source reports that come out of Syria this is unconfirmed.
Speaking of airstrikes killing civilians in Syria, The New York Times has done some more digging into the Glorious War Against Islamic State and it seems like it might not have been all that glorious:
A single top secret American strike cell launched tens of thousands of bombs and missiles against the Islamic State in Syria, but in the process of hammering a vicious enemy, the shadowy force sidestepped safeguards and repeatedly killed civilians, according to multiple current and former military and intelligence officials.
The unit was called Talon Anvil, and it worked in three shifts around the clock between 2014 and 2019, pinpointing targets for the United States’ formidable air power to hit: convoys, car bombs, command centers and squads of enemy fighters.
But people who worked with the strike cell say in the rush to destroy enemies, it circumvented rules imposed to protect noncombatants, and alarmed its partners in the military and the C.I.A. by killing people who had no role in the conflict: farmers trying to harvest, children in the street, families fleeing fighting, and villagers sheltering in buildings.
The NYT’s blasé, “oh well, if you want to make an omelet you have to break a few eggs” tone notwithstanding, what’s described in this article isn’t a few oopsies in the fog of war, it’s a systematic campaign of war crimes including deliberate efforts to cover up those war crimes. They stretched the definition of “self defense” beyond recognition in order to get around procedural safeguards and manipulated surveillance drones to ensure that strikes wouldn’t be caught on camera. And yet, in the bizarro world of US empire, here’s how their operations get characterized:
“They were ruthlessly efficient and good at their jobs,” said one former Air Force intelligence officer who worked on hundreds of classified Talon Anvil missions from 2016 to 2018. “But they also made a lot of bad strikes.”
The US military repeatedly insists that it is unsurpassed in the emphasis it places on preserving civilian lives. But if that were really the case, then a unit that “made a lot of bad strikes”—“bad strikes” here being a euphemism for bombing civilians—couldn’t possibly be considered “ruthlessly efficient and good at their jobs.” I’d accept “ruthless,” but that’s about it.
As it turns out, one Hamas supporter was killed in Friday’s explosion at a Palestinian refugee camp in the Lebanese city of Tyre. It’s still unclear what caused that explosion, though Hamas officials have said it was an electrical fault in a facility storing oxygen tanks for medical purposes. I mention this as preamble to the report that three Hamas members were killed by gunfire during that person’s funeral on Sunday. Hamas is accusing the Fatah party, its rival for Palestinian political authority, of carrying out the attack using Palestinian Authority security forces. Fatah is, unsurprisingly, denying that accusation.
Israeli forces killed one Palestinian on Monday morning after they allegedly came under attack while carrying out a raid in the West Bank city of Nablus. The man may have been a member of Islamic Jihad, which subsequently issued a statement that came just short of claiming him.
Satellite imagery suggests the Iranian government is planning another space launch. Obviously details are sparse but this could be relevant to the progress of nuclear talks in Vienna. The US invariably complains about Iran’s space program because of the overlap (which is real but is often overstated) between civilian rocket and ballistic missile technology. If Iran goes ahead with a launch while the nuclear talks are in a precarious state, it could add to that precarity.
The Iranian government has apparently escalated its deportation of Afghan migrants since the Taliban seized Kabul back in August:
“People are simply being dumped on the border” by Iranian authorities, a United Nations official said. “The percentage of deportations is rising dramatically since the takeover by the Taliban,” the official said.
Between 2,500 and 4,000 Afghans are being deported every day by Iranian authorities and ending up in Zaranj. That is compounding an already-tense situation at the Afghan-Iranian border. Earlier this month Iranian and Taliban forces exchanged fire with mortars and machine guns after a dispute between Iranian farmers and Taliban fighters over border demarcation.
Migrants without passports or Iranian visas usually enter Iran via desert smuggling routes in the province of Nimroz, where the borders of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan meet. Returnees on the way back cross the Silk Bridge linking Afghanistan and Iran as they walk alongside fuel trucks and baggage handlers pushing rickety trolleys and wearing scarves and swimming goggles to protect against windblown sand.
From August, when the Taliban swept through Afghanistan in their final blitz offensive, through Dec. 5, nearly half a million Afghans who entered Iran illegally later returned, according to the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration. About 360,000 were deported and 126,000 left voluntarily. U.N. officials said many of those likely returned because they feared deportation.
Iran hosts hundreds of thousands of Afghan nationals, many undocumented, and as its economy continues to struggle under the weight of US sanctions and the pandemic the impetus to return these people to Afghanistan only grows. The migrants, however, wind up being dumped at border crossings, often without the money even to get back to their homes in Afghanistan, let alone to make another attempt to leave the country.
Two Pakistani Taliban fighters attacked a polio vaccine team in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Saturday, killing at least one of the police officers guarding it. The attack comes just a couple of days after the militant group decided not to extend its one month ceasefire with the Pakistani government.
The Bangladeshi government summoned the US ambassador in Dhaka on Saturday to lodge a complaint over newly imposed US sanctions. The Biden administration marked “Human Rights Day” on Friday with an array of new sanctions designations. One of those designations involved Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion, which is the country’s elite police unit (though it incorporates personnel from the Bangladeshi military as well) tasked, among other things, with counter-terrorism. Seven individuals with ties to the RAB were also designated for US sanctions. The RAB was formed in 2004 and is alleged to have carried out hundreds of extrajudicial killings and/or forced disappearances since then.
In their third and final (maybe) independence referendum, over 96 percent of New Caledonian voters opted to remain a French territory on Sunday. The lopsided outcome has more to do with a successful boycott by pro-independence parties than with the actual public sentiment around this issue, though having won the first two referendums (by much smaller margins), the pro-union side probably should have been considered a slim favorite to win this vote as well. On that note, it seems relevant that turnout on Sunday was somewhere around 44 percent, a little over half of what it was in the 2018 and 2020 independence votes. The pro-independence side boycotted the vote after the French government refused a request to delay things until late 2022 due to COVID. They’ve already rejected the result, so this is unlikely to be the last word on New Caledonian independence.
Libya’s interim government announced on Sunday that it’s ready to go ahead with the country’s presidential election on December 24, as scheduled. It was forced to make that otherwise mundane announcement because of a growing sense that the election is not, in fact, going to take place on December 24. On Saturday, Libya’s electoral commission announced that it could not yet, with less than two weeks to go before people theoretically head to the polls, release a list of candidates, citing a need “to exhaust all means of litigation to ensure its decisions comply with issued judgements.”
What does that mean? Well, it probably means that the legal cases surrounding registered candidates Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, whom the commission removed from the ballot only to have a court overturn that decision, and former interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, whose candidacy has been allowed to proceed but is being challenged on the grounds that he resigned from the interim government after a legal deadline to do so in order to be eligible for this vote, are still being adjudicated. It also means that, whatever happens to their candidacies, lesser known candidates are screwed because they have no time to actually campaign. So if the election goes forward as planned—and as the international community is strongly insisting it must—the results are going to be irrevocable tainted. On the other hand, if the vote is postponed, the results will…almost certainly be tainted anyway.
Reuters and other outlets are reporting that the Tigray People’s Liberation Front has retaken the town of Lalibela, in potentially another swing in Ethiopia’s volatile civil war. Government forces recaptured Lalibela, one of Ethiopia’s World Heritage sites, earlier this month, and have since claimed substantial territorial gains in their fight against the TPLF. The rebels appear to have retaken the town without a fight so there’s no word on any casualties as yet, but many residents do seem to have fled so there may be a high number of displaced persons.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The Congolese and Ugandan militaries said this weekend that their joint operation against the Islamist Allied Democratic Forces militia, which began late last month, has so far resulted in the capture of 34 ADF fighters and the rescue of 31 people held hostage by the group. They claim to have destroyed four ADF camps. These claims are as far as I know unconfirmed but there have been reports of people abducted by the ADF being freed over the past few days, so that part of the story at least seems to check out. The ADF, which is claimed by Islamic State through its “Central Africa” affiliate, emerged in Uganda in the 1990s but quickly shifted its operations to the sparsely controlled eastern DRC. It has in recent weeks made several attacks in Uganda, prompting the joint operation.
Thousands of people protested for the third weekend in a row on Saturday against a proposed lithium mining project in western Serbia, even after the Serbian government appeared to put the kibosh on that project just a few days prior. Environmental activists have raised concerns about the effect of the proposed mine—partly because the project is/was to have been undertaken by Rio Tinto, a company whose environmental record speaks for itself, and not in a good way.
More polling supports the conclusion that Boris Johnson’s public image is circling the proverbial drain. This time the survey comes from Optimium and shows that Johnson’s Conservative Party, currently mired in a number of mini-scandals that seem mostly to be of Johnson’s own creation, is now polling at 32 percent. That puts them nine points behind the Labour Party, which suddenly finds itself on the cusp of a double digit polling lead through no particular fault of its own.
The UK isn’t due to hold a new election until 2024, so these numbers are not necessarily critical for the Tories. But they may be critical for Johnson. This Optimium poll also showed that his net approval rating is now at negative-35 percent and that some 57 percent of the British public would like to see him resign. Given the fairly unambiguous evidence that Boris is dragging the party down with him, it seems reasonable to speculate about the possibility of a leadership challenge.
A potential bombshell in Sunday’s New York Times could explain why former Haitian President Jovenal Moïse was assassinated earlier this year:
Before being assassinated in July, he had been working on a list of powerful politicians and businesspeople involved in Haiti’s drug trade, with the intention of handing over the dossier to the American government, according to four senior Haitian advisers and officials tasked with drafting the document.
The president had ordered the officials to spare no one, not even the power brokers who had helped propel him into office, they said — one of several moves against suspected drug traffickers that could explain a motive for the assassination.
When gunmen burst into Mr. Moïse’s residence and killed him in his bedroom, his wife, Martine Moïse — who had also been shot and lay bleeding on the floor, pretending to be dead — described how they stayed to search the room, hurriedly digging through his files.
“‘That’s it,’” they finally declared to one another before fleeing, she told The New York Times in her first interview after the assassination, adding that she did not know what the gunmen had taken.
Investigators arrived at the crime scene to find Mr. Moïse’s home office ransacked, papers strewn everywhere. In interrogations, some of the captured hit men confessed that retrieving the list Mr. Moïse had been working on — with the names of suspected drug traffickers — was a top priority, according to three senior Haitian officials with knowledge of the investigation.
I have no idea whether this is accurate, but the picture the NYT piece paints of Moïse’s last months is of a man who had turned on the financial and political elites who’d enabled his rise to the presidency, for reasons that aren’t completely clear. In Haiti those elites are almost always involved in drug trafficking and/or money laundering, and for Moïse that included his predecessor/mentor, former President Michel Martelly. It’s possible Moïse felt stifled by Martelly and company and was trying to get out from under their control, the drug list being part of that effort.
Unclear in all of this is extent of the US Drug Enforcement Agency’s connections to these oligarchs. One of the alleged ringleaders of the assassination, Joseph Felix Badio, was a one-time DEA informant, Moïse’s ex-head of security was reportedly a DEA target, and the US Senate has apparently been investigating possible corruption linked to the DEA’s activities in Haiti. I don’t think what’s here would support the argument that the US government targeted Moïse for assassination, but it’s possible some element within the US government had a connection to the operation.
Finally, TomDispatch’s William Astore offers a fairly depressing look at some of the key questions the US Congress should be, but isn’t, asking about our ever-increasing military budget:
Where are you going to get the money? That question haunts congressional proposals to help the poor, the unhoused, and those struggling to pay the mortgage or rent or medical bills, among so many other critical domestic matters. And yet — big surprise! — there’s always plenty of money for the Pentagon. In fiscal year 2022, in fact, Congress is being especially generous with $778 billion in funding, roughly $25 billion more than the Biden administration initially asked for. Even that staggering sum seriously undercounts government funding for America’s vast national security state, which, since it gobbles up more than half of federal discretionary spending, is truly this country’s primary, if unofficial, fourth branch of government.
Final approval of the latest military budget, formally known as the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, may slip into January as Congress wrangles over various side issues. Unlike so much crucial funding for the direct care of Americans, however, don’t for a second imagine it won’t pass with supermajorities. (Yes, the government could indeed be shut down one of these days, but not — never! — the U.S. military.)
Some favorites of mine among “defense” budget side issues now being wrangled over include whether military members should be able to refuse Covid-19 vaccines without being punished, whether young women should be required to register for the selective service system when they turn 18 (even though this country hasn’t had a draft in almost half a century and isn’t likely to have one in the foreseeable future), or whether the Iraq War AUMF (Authorization for Use of Military Force), passed by Congress to disastrous effect in 2002, should be repealed after nearly two decades of calamity and futility.
As debates over these and similar issues, predictably partisan, grab headlines, the biggest issue of all eludes serious coverage: Why, despite decades of disastrous wars, do Pentagon budgets continue to grow, year after year, like ever-expanding nuclear mushroom clouds? In other words, as voices are raised and arms waved in Congress about vaccine tyranny or a hypothetical future draft of your 18-year-old daughter, truly critical issues involving your money (hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of taxpayer dollars) go largely uncovered.