World roundup: December 12 2023
Stories from Myanmar, Uganda, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
December 12, 627: A Byzantine army under Emperor Heraclius defeats a Sasanid 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
The United Nations COP28 summit has extended beyond its scheduled Tuesday close due to a continued disagreement over the language in its final statement. As we’ve been tracking, major fossil fuel producers have managed to expunge a call for “phasing out” fossil fuels in favor of something much vaguer. There’s now word of a compromise draft that’s somewhat less vague, which could be acceptable to attendees and would be adopted at a special Wednesday or perhaps Thursday session. This whole dust up is silly, given that these closing statements are at best expressions of intent rather than binding commitments. The only thing a failure to agree on a statement would really affect is the public image of the host country, the UAE, whose fitness to host a climate change summit was always dubious anyway.
The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday that the Israeli military (IDF) has begun flooding tunnels beneath Gaza with seawater, a tactic that’s intended to force militants above ground along (presumably) with any surviving hostages taken during the October 7 attacks in southern Israel. The WSJ first reported on this plan earlier this month, when the IDF was weighing the value of destroying the tunnels against the impact of literally salting the Gazan earth, ruining whatever remains of Gaza’s freshwater supply, and potentially flushing the contents of its sewage system to the surface. It took about a week for Israeli officials to decide that compromising what remains of Gaza’s ability to sustain human life was worth it.
The UN General Assembly approved a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza on Tuesday. The vote was a real tight one, with 153 in favor and 10 opposed plus 23 abstentions. Joining Israel and the US in opposing the ceasefire were Austria, Czechia, Guatemala, Liberia, Micronesia, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, and Paraguay. By comparison, the last UNGA ceasefire vote was 120-14 with 45 abstentions. We can probably assume the abstentions (or at least most of them) were from governments that support a ceasefire but are still too afraid of alienating the US to say so publicly. There’s no substance to a UNGA resolution so the outcome won’t affect the war. It might affect the US government’s approach to the war, assuming anyone in the Biden administration is actually worried about this level of international isolation.
On that note, prior to the vote Joe Biden told an audience at a campaign event that Israel is “starting to lose” international support because of the severity of its campaign in Gaza. I’m not sure what the issue is—maybe it’s the 18,000+ dead, or the 18 percent of Gaza’s infrastructure (or around 40,000 buildings) that the UN now estimates has been damaged or destroyed, or maybe it’s the fact that Israeli forces attacked yet another Gazan hospital on Tuesday—but the lopsided UN vote suggests that it’s not just Israel that’s losing support.
The Israeli government agreed on Tuesday to open the Kerem Shalom checkpoint, which separates southern Gaza from Israel proper, as a new inspection point for humanitarian aid trucks. Egyptian officials say they sent some 80 trucks to that facility for inspection. Using Kerem Shalom in this way could help alleviate an inspection bottleneck, but unless the Israeli government agrees to open the checkpoint up to allow trucks to pass directly into Gaza it’s unlikely to have a significant impact on the amount of aid getting into the territory. Right now trucks are still being forced through the Rafah checkpoint, which isn’t built for heavy truck traffic and can’t handle enough of it to support an adequate relief operation.
The IDF says it’s recovered the bodies of two hostages from a tunnel under the Jabalya refugee camp. One, a soldier, was apparently killed during the October 7 attacks but was taken into Gaza anyway. It’s unclear when or how the other died. Israeli media is reporting that officials are trying to reopen negotiations with Hamas on releasing additional hostages, but it’s unclear whether Hamas officials are prepared to do that. Israeli authorities have now declared 19 of the remaining hostages dead in absentia.
Israeli forces killed at least seven Palestinians in what was apparently a significant raid in the city of Jenin on Tuesday. Five were killed in an Israeli drone strike, which is still a somewhat rare occurrence in the West Bank though they’re becoming less rare. At least 282 Palestinians have now been killed in the West Bank since October 7.
Houthi rebels in northern Yemen fired a missile at the Norwegian-owned oil tanker Strinda in the Red Sea’s Bab-el-Mandeb Strait late Monday. A French frigate reportedly shot down a drone that was also threatening the vessel. The attack caused a fire aboard the Strinda but the crew was able to extinguish it without incurring any casualties. The Houthis are claiming that the vessel was carrying oil to Israel, but tracking data apparently had it bound for Italy.
Jordanian border guards interdicted a group of drug smugglers who had crossed into Jordan from Syria near the city of Mafraq on Tuesday, killing “several” of them with one Jordanian soldier also dying in the firefight. Jordanian authorities have been trying to crack down on the movement of drugs, particularly the stimulant Captagon, through their country on the way from Syria to the Persian Gulf.
Polls closed in Egypt’s presidential election on Tuesday after three days of voting. Please allow me to spare you any suspense: incumbent Abdel Fattah el-Sisi won. The only real question, apart from turnout, is how big a victory Sisi has decided to give himself this time around.
Jihadist fighters attacked a police station-turned-military base in northern Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Tuesday, killing at least 24 people. Tehreek-e-Jihad Pakistan, a relatively new group that’s either splintered off of the main Pakistani Taliban or is a rebrand of some portion of it, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Elsewhere, the Islamabad High Court overturned former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s 2018 corruption conviction. This I believe clears Sharif’s criminal record and helps clear the way to his candidacy in next year’s parliamentary election. If he does run he’ll presumably be the Pakistan Muslim League party’s PM candidate.
Afghanistan is no longer the world’s opium capital—it has officially, according to the UN, passed that dubious title on to Myanmar. In part this is due to the Taliban-led Afghan government’s crackdown on drug production, but Myanmar’s descent into widespread anarchy since the February 2021 military coup also goes some way toward explaining the shift. Some 47,100 hectares of land in Myanmar is now being used to grow opium, which is still less than was being used a decade ago but represents a hefty increase over the past year or so. A weak economy presumably has something to do with the increased popularity of opium production.
Guinea-Bissau President Umaro Sissoco Embaló named Geraldo Martins as his new prime minister on Tuesday, and if that name sounds familiar it might be because Martins was already serving as PM before Embaló sacked the entire cabinet as he was dissolving parliament last week. He accused cabinet members of being too “passive” about the shootout in Bissau a couple of weeks ago that he’s characterized as an “attempted coup.”
Ethiopian authorities have arrested the federal government’s now-former state minister for peace, Taye Dendea, on allegations that he’s been working with Oromo rebels to overthrow Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government. Coincidentally, or maybe not, Taye has criticized the government, and Abiy personally, for the failure of its most recent round of peace talks with the rebel Oromo Liberation Army. It sure seems like that criticism is the reason he’s now being charged for colluding with the OLA. Abiy is not known for graciously accepting criticism.
The Nation’s Natasha Hakimi Zapata questions whether the Ugandan government has truly earned its reputation as a “progressive” international refuge:
“I’m barely surviving in Uganda, but I am still alive,” says a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo whom I’ll call Joseph, as goats and chickens scuttle through Kampala’s informal settlements. Over several weeks, refugees from the DRC, Somalia, South Sudan, Burundi, Rwanda, Eritrea, and Afghanistan, among other countries, each told The Nation their stories of displacement to Uganda, a co-convenor of the United Nations’ upcoming 2023 Global Refugee Forum. Most ended on a similar note: We are struggling, even starving, but we are safe.
At the Geneva forum beginning December 15, this East African country and temporary home to 2.4 million refugees will be showcasing what is known as the “Uganda Model” for refugee-hosting based on its 2006 Refugee Act—hailed time and again by the United Nations and Western media as the most progressive in the world. And yet, while humanitarian and refugees groups recognize that Uganda’s approach is indeed progressive, the refugees’ increasingly dire circumstances amid aid cuts and failed strategies should be raising urgent questions about why the West is so invested in holding up Uganda as a model to the rest of the world. So, too, should President Yoweri Museveni’s growing authoritarianism. Could it be, as some critics have suggested, that the West is willing to overlook both poor conditions in settlements and Museveni’s dangerous power grabs in order to prevent refugees from reaching our own shores?
The Biden administration added more than 250 people and entities to its Russia sanctions list on Tuesday. Most of the newly blacklisted entries appear to be accused of funneling weapons and other proscribed military products to Russia, but the administration also targeted Russia’s banking, energy, and mining sectors.
Meanwhile, a “classified US intelligence assessment” circulating in Congress estimates that the Russian military has lost “87 percent of the total number of active-duty ground troops it had prior to launching its invasion of Ukraine and two-thirds of its pre-invasion tanks” and “over a quarter of its pre-invasion stockpiles of ground forces equipment” according to CNN. That’s an astonishing level of battlefield losses—so astonishing, in fact, that it’s very hard to believe these figures could be accurate without the Russian military completely collapsing. This is apparently the story the US government is telling, though.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spent his Tuesday in Washington, pleading with congressional Republicans to authorize funding for new military aid. Going by the immediate reaction it doesn’t appear that he made much headway. The main hangup blocking adoption of Joe Biden’s supplemental war funding bill, which includes over $60 billion for Ukraine, still appears to be a disagreement over border security funding. There’s some possibility that a compromise could emerge before Congress takes its year-end recess, but it seems at this point like a long shot.
Finally, with COP28 perhaps on the verge of achieving…well, not very much, as it turns out, Sarang Shidore argues in The Nation that US primacy and climate change are inextricably linked:
Yet another COP comes along with another round of bad news on our climate failure. Nobody who seriously follows climate change believes anymore that the world will stay within the 1.5 C “safe” limit of warming. Breaching the even more dangerous 2 C threshold is also getting likelier with every passing year of insufficient action. Current global warming projections are in the 2.5 C—2.9 C range. But we don’t have to run complex climate models to know that wildfires, hurricanes, heatwaves and other signs of an angry planet are already pummeling us, and they will get worse.
The planet is burning. And US habits of primacy are a key reason why.
American primacy is generally defined as its global military dominance—with its enormous firepower, hundreds of overseas military bases, and a sprawling network of allies. The United States also dominates global finance. Matters are more complicated when it comes to trade and investment however, as well as the institutional arena, where newer groupings such as the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) are revitalizing themselves. This has triggered a debate as to whether we are already in a multipolar world. But Washington’s habits of primacy (as separate from the primacy’s material extent) are more germane to the climate debate. These habits involve a sense of American exceptionalism, an à la carte approach to international law and norms, and an overly moralist gaze toward the rest of the world.
Of course, Washington’s lens of primacy is not the only reason for our inability to resolve the climate crisis. A systemic, wicked problem such as climate change cannot but have multiple causes and implicated actors. The list of climate violators is long, and they span the globe. But the ingrained habits of primacy are a key contributor to our climate failure through three principal axes: the imbalanced US-China dynamic, a dismissive attitude toward the Global South, and a schizophrenic framing of the climate challenge.
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