World roundup: December 13 2022
Stories from Israel-Palestine, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chile, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
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
December 13, 1577: Francis Drake begins the expedition that would eventually take him around the world, returning to England in 1580. Although Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the Earth first, roughly 60 years earlier, he managed to get himself killed along the way. Drake has the distinction of being the first person to command a voyage around the world from start to finish.
December 13, 1937: The Imperial Japanese army defeats the Chinese National Revolutionary Army and captures the city of Nanjing. What followed became known as the Nanjing Massacre, as Japanese soldiers spent the next six weeks slaughtering prisoners and civilians in the city. Estimates of the death toll vary widely, but most scholars believe it was somewhere between 40,000 and the official Chinese count of 300,000.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
The Turkish government says it’s reached an agreement with Western insurance firms that should eliminate the traffic jam of oil tankers that have been stuck trying to transit between the Black and Mediterranean seas over the past week. The agreement obliges tankers to present written proof of insurance to Turkish authorities before they’re permitted to make the transit. Turkish officials imposed stricter proof of insurance requirements after the European Union/G7 Russian oil price cap went into effect last week, due to fears that an uninsured tanker might have some sort of mishap in Turkish waters. The cap bars tankers transporting oil sold above the $60 price cap from being insured, which could leave Turkey holding the bag for any crises.
Yariv Levin of the Likud Party was elected the new speaker of the Israeli Knesset on Monday, suggesting that Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu is moving closer to finalizing his coalition agreement. Levin succeeds Mickey Levy of the Yesh Atid party, which will presumably find itself in the opposition assuming Netanyahu is able to close the deal by the December 21 deadline. He may wind up leaving the speakership in short order to take a cabinet post, but his job now will be to oversee key procedural votes, like one allowing Shas Party boss Aryeh Deri to assume a cabinet position despite his past tax fraud conviction.
The Chinese government has advised its citizens to leave Afghanistan, one day after an Islamic State attack on a Kabul hotel left five Chinese nationals injured. The attack targeted the Chinese-owned Kabul Longan Hotel and apparently lasted several hours before Afghan security forces were able to regain control of the facility. It’s unclear whether this incident is going to affect Chinese commercial activity in Afghanistan, but the possibility has to be disconcerting to an Afghan government that needs China’s support to try to revive the country’s decimated economy.
Indian and Chinese officials have revealed a few more details about the recent border clash between their forces in the Tawang region of India’s Arunachal Pradesh state. The incident took place on Friday and, according to New Delhi, involved Chinese forces attempting to cross the poorly-defined border into Indian territory. In the Chinese version of events, it was Indian soldiers who crossed the border to interfere with a Chinese patrol. Either or even both of these narratives could be true given how nebulous the border is. Both sides appear to have suffered some minor injuries but nothing serious.
According to Bloomberg, Chinese officials have indefinitely postponed their annual Central Economic Work Conference amid concerns about a rise in COVID cases related to the government’s relaxation of “Zero-COVID” restrictions. The meeting had been scheduled for this week and was, as usual, intended to set out economic policy for the coming year. There’s no confirmation that the postponement was due to COVID but it seems the likeliest rationale.
The governments of Australia and Vanuatu signed a new and apparently fairly broad security agreement on Tuesday covering everything from disaster relief to maritime security to cybersecurity. Australian officials are no doubt hoping that this deal will be the template for similar bilateral arrangements with other Pacific Islands states that might otherwise turn toward China for their security needs.
The government of Sudan, meanwhile, has reportedly cut a “preliminary” $6 billion deal with two UAE-based firms to build and operate a new Red Sea port at Abu Amama, around 200 kilometers north of Port Sudan. The swanky new facility will include an airport and plenty of basic infrastructure, and will apparently function as a “special economic zone” for Emirati commerce. How nice for them.
Ghana has secured a $3 billion, three year International Monetary Fund bailout loan aimed at reducing inflation and getting a handle on Ghana’s high debt—with the usual package of IMF-mandated economic “reforms,” I’m sure. The agreement still needs to be approved by IMF management and its board, which will probably happen sometime early next year.
The Ugandan military says its forces killed at least 11 Allied Democratic Forces fighters who crossed into Uganda overnight from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Islamist ADF began as a Ugandan militant group before relocating itself in the eastern DR Congo, but its fighters do still cross the border from time to time aiming to carry out attacks in Uganda. The Ugandan military has deployed hundreds of soldiers to the DRC as part of a joint anti-ADF operation and also as part of the East African Community’s joint peacekeeping force in that region.
US prosecutors have charged five Russian nationals and two US nationals over allegations that they’ve been laundering money and obtaining high tech “dual use” products on behalf of the Russian government in violation of sanctions. The two US nationals have been arrested along with one of the Russians, who’s in Estonian custody subject to a US extradition request.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko named a new foreign minister on Tuesday while announcing a snap inspection of his military that has apparently renewed fears that he might jump into the Ukraine war on Russia’s side. Sergei Aleinik is now Belarusian FM, replacing Vladimir Makei after the latter’s sudden and heretofore unexplained death last month. There remains no real indication that Lukashenko is planning to intervene in Ukraine and little indication that Belarusian forces would make a serious impact on the conflict if he does.
It sounds like the US government will announce later this week that it’s sending a Patriot surface to air missile system to Ukraine to help bolster the country’s air defenses in the face of ongoing Russian drone and missile strikes. Western countries have made air defense the main focus of their Ukrainian military aid for several weeks now, but the Patriot would be a step up in terms of sophistication compared with what the Ukrainians have received so far. Elsewhere, a group of 70 countries meeting in Paris on Tuesday pledged a collective €1 billion euros in aid to Ukraine to support infrastructure repairs and other basic necessities.
BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA
European Union member states have agreed to make Bosnia and Herzegovina a “candidate” for membership, which is the very preliminary first stage to actually joining the EU. The European Commission recommended this step back in October in spite of Bosnia’s deeply fractured internal political situation, which would seem to make it a poor candidate for accession at least at present. The EU appears to be torn between a reluctance to invite a country facing a potential secessionist conflict into the club and a desire to extend its reach into the western Balkans lest the region be lost to Russia, or something like that. It’s unlikely that Bosnia’s candidacy will advance unless/until the Republika Srpska crisis is somehow resolved, and if Bosnian Serb leaders prefer not to join the EU they may have an effective veto over the process.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has achieved her goal of a centrist coalition to replace the more leftist arrangement under which her Social Democratic party had been governing since 2019. Frederiksen has cut a deal with the center-right Liberal and Moderate parties, which finished second and third (respectively) behind the Social Democrats in November’s parliamentary election. The coalition only holds 89 seats in the 179 seat Danish Folketing, but that’s functionally a majority as the four representatives from the Faroe Islands and Greenland traditionally do not participate in matters related to Danish internal affairs.
Chilean political parties have apparently agreed to try again to rewrite the country’s Pinochet-era constitution. In case you’ve lost track of this story, Chileans voted overwhelmingly in a 2020 plebiscite in favor of drafting a new constitution, then voted convincingly to reject the draft constitution back in September. President Gabriel Boric had staked his presidency on the adoption of a more progressive national charter and has been somewhat stymied since the voters rejected it. The thing is, while voters didn’t like the constitution with which they were presented in September, they still want to replace the current charter, so giving it another go makes political sense for all concerned. The new plan is to form a commission, including Indigenous representation, to begin the process, with voters electing a new 50 member constitutional assembly next April that will draft a new constitution, again.
This agreement is subject to approval by four-sevenths of the Chilean Congress, or 29 senators and 89 members of the Chamber of Deputies. This doesn’t seem like a big hurdle given the number of parties involved in negotiating the deal, but I suppose anything is possible.
After several days of unrest sparked by the ouster and arrest of former Peruvian President Pedro Castillo, it sounds like the Peruvian military is intervening to “protect” key infrastructure. Given the Peruvian military’s historic penchant for political intervention I wouldn’t assume it intends to stop there. At least seven people have died so far in protests following Castillo’s removal from office, and there’s little indication that new President Dina Boluarte’s offer to move the country’s April 2026 general election up to April 2024 has had any effect in terms of tamping down public anger. Even if Boluarte does succeed in restoring some calm, it’s unclear how she intends to govern for almost a year and a half in an environment in which the Peruvian Congress is deeply unpopular and her own legitimacy is in question.
Castillo, for his part, is still asserting that he’s the lawful president of Peru, though in fairness there was more legal basis to the impeachment vote last Wednesday that removed him from office than there was to his ham-fisted attempt to dissolve Congress earlier that day. Nevertheless, the presidents of Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, and Mexico have all indicated that they support his assertion, and the brutality being shown toward protesters by Peruvian security forces is not exactly bolstering the new government’s legitimacy. Castillo’s lawyers had appealed his arrest, but their appeal was rejected by a judge on Tuesday and he’s still in custody.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro declared on Monday that the Venezuelan-Colombian border will fully reopen as of January 1. That border has been fully or mostly closed for around three years and at least partially closed for around seven, owing to hostility between Maduro and previous Colombian governments. But new Colombian President Gustavo Petro came into office intending to restore normal relations with Venezuela and so far it’s been fairly smooth sailing on that front.
The US Department of Energy held an event on Tuesday to confirm reports that scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab were able to produce a net energy gain from a fusion reaction earlier this month. The experiment used 2.05 megajoules of energy to generate the reaction, which produced 3.15 megajoules. Achieving a net energy gain is a major milestone in the potential development of fusion power, though this does not mean that fusion power is close to becoming reality.
Also on Tuesday, the Biden administration kicked off the US-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington, where it’s hoping to Win Hearts And Minds across the African continent—or at least to improve Washington’s image as compared with, say, China. For much of the past two decades the relationship between the US and most African nations has been defined mainly, or wholly, by counter-terrorism. The Biden administration seems to want to move beyond that limitation, but it nevertheless has to contend with the War on Terror’s legacy—including the failure of US security assistance to generate any actual security. The Quincy Institute recently published a symposium on that legacy, including comments from FX’s own Alex Thurston:
Counterterrorism programs can harm host countries by empowering authoritarians, abetting corruption, and fueling grievances. Some of these harms have occurred in Africa, with variation across time and place.
The U.S. government typically deprioritizes Africa — a lamentable choice overall, but one that has kept counterterrorism somewhat limited outside of Somalia and Libya. More expansive counterterrorism would have done even more harm. U.S. policymakers have been right, for example, in deciding not to conduct armed drone strikes in the Sahel, despite serious militancy there.
At the same time, existing counterterrorism programs are flawed. The Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership, covering northwest Africa, has been wasteful and poorly managed, according to audits. The U.S. focus on training, moreover, has contributed to sidelining much-needed conversations about conflicts’ political roots. U.S. prioritization of counterterrorism, meanwhile, has led Washington to overlook abuses by partners: in Niger, then-President Mahamadou Issoufou jailed his main opponent during the 2016 election, and scandals have erupted — with no accountability — over allegations of extra-judicial killings by soldiers and embezzlement from the security budget. The United States outsources some counterterrorism to regional forces, such as the African Union Mission in Somalia, but various forces have faltered, while others have become open-ended deployments lacking credible plans for resolving conflict.
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