World roundup: December 15 2022
Stories from Vietnam, Burkina Faso, Slovakia, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
December 14, 1911: Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team become the first human beings (that we know of, I suppose) to set foot on the South Pole. The expedition had set out from its base camp on October 19 and arrived back on January 25, 1912.
December 14, 1995: The Dayton Agreement ends the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. While ending that war was no minor feat, the agreement has had mixed at best results overall. Under Dayton’s terms the various warring parties—Bosniak, Bosnian Croat, and Bosnian Serb—agreed not to divide Bosnia and Herzegovina but instead to establish an internal partition between the Serbian Republika Srpska and the Croatian-Bosniak Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The effect has been similar to a full partition or arguably worse, because instead of two functioning states (or one, had Republika Srpska united with Serbia) what’s emerged is one state whose two component halves rarely agree on anything. That leaves most governance up to the “High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina” who is selected by Dayton’s “Peace Implementation Council” or in other words imposed on Bosnia from abroad.
December 15, 1256: Having already received the surrender of the last Assassin imam, Rukn al-Din Khurshah, Mongolian warlord Hulagu and his army enter and destroy the main Assassin fortress at Alamut, completing their campaign against that infamous religious order.
December 15, 1925: Reza Pahlavi is crowned Shah of Iran.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Al-Monitor’s Fehim Taştekin reports on the Russian-led effort to forestall a new Turkish invasion of northern Syria by moving Kurdish forces away from the Turkish border:
Turkish plans for a ground operation against Kurdish-held areas in Syria have been stalled by Russian and US objections, but a strategy of sustained pressure seems to be taking shape to incrementally undo Kurdish gains on the ground.
The proposals that Moscow and Washington have reportedly made to appease Ankara would both shrink the area of control of the de facto Kurdish-led autonomous administration in northern Syria, though they would prevent any Turkish boots on the ground. Moreover, Turkey’s talks with Russia are premised on the prospect of Ankara normalizing ties with Damascus and the Russians using that prospect to pressure the Kurds to compromise with the Syrian government.
Thousands of people reportedly turned out in Istanbul on Thursday to protest the conviction and sentencing of Mayor Ekrem İmamoğlu for supposedly “insulting” members of Turkey’s Supreme Electoral Council. İmamoğlu’s sentence included 31 months in prison and a ban on holding political office, which will presumably necessitate his removal as mayor and will certainly prevent him from running in next year’s presidential election, in which it just so happens that he was probably the strongest potential challenger to incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Purely coincidental, I’m sure. İmamoğlu’s case has galvanized Turkey’s many opposition parties, though assuming the political ban holds there’s no obvious alternative candidate to lead the combined opposition into the election.
One Irish soldier serving as a United Nations peacekeeper was shot and killed and another critically wounded on Thursday after their vehicle was surrounded by what Irish Defense Minister Simon Coveney called “a hostile mob” in southern Lebanon. Coveney suggested that Hezbollah was involved in the incident, which took place in the town of al-Aqbieh. But a senior Hezbollah official named Wafiq Safa later described the shooting as an “unintentional incident” between the peacekeepers and local residents, maintaining that Hezbollah had nothing to do with it.
A Jordanian police officer was killed in the city of Maʿan on Thursday during protests sparked in part by high fuel prices. Four other police officers were injured and authorities do not appear to have any idea who was responsible. Protests over Jordan’s weak economy have spread to multiple cities and seem to be feeding off of strikes by truck drivers over the cost of fuel.
Another border clash between Afghan and Pakistani forces has left at least one person dead. According to Pakistani officials, their personnel were repairing part of a border fence damaged by cross-border violence over the weekend when they came under attack from the Afghan side. There’s no word on casualties on the Afghan side of the border but the Pakistanis are reporting at least 12 wounded in addition to the aforementioned death.
Speaking of Afghanistan, its Taliban-led government and Myanmar’s military junta were both denied representation at the United Nations on Thursday, when the UN’s credentials committee issued a report that recommended putting off a final decision on their status. The committee similarly punted on the question of which, if either, of Libya’s two governments should have UN representation. Granting any of these governments representation would amount to de facto recognition and the committee clearly isn’t prepared to take that step yet. The UN General Assembly will vote on whether or not to adopt the committee’s recommendations on Friday and it would be surprising if it voted to reject them.
A new study of satellite imagery suggests that Chinese-built dams along the upper part of the Mekong River are bringing ruin to downstream farmers in Vietnam:
Standing on the bank of the Mekong River, Tran Van Cung can see his rice farm wash away before his very eyes. The paddy’s edge is crumbling into the delta.
Just 15 years ago, Southeast Asia’s longest river carried some 143 million tonnes of sediment – as heavy as about 430 Empire State Buildings – through to the Mekong River Delta every year, dumping nutrients along riverbanks essential to keeping tens of thousands of farms like Cung’s intact and productive.
But as Chinese-built hydroelectric dams have mushroomed upriver, much of that sediment is being blocked, an analysis of satellite data by Germany-based aquatic remote sensing company EOMAP and Reuters shows. The analysis reinforces an estimate by the Mekong River Commission, set up in 1995 by countries bordering the river, that in 2020 only about a third of those river-borne soils would reach the Vietnamese floodplains, and at the current rate of decline, less than five million tonnes of sediment will be reaching the delta each year by 2040.
A human rights organization called “Safeguard Defenders” is alleging that the Chinese government operates 102 secret police outposts in 53 countries around the world. Many of these are apparently in Europe, including 11 in Italy. The group claims that personnel working in the outposts attempt to force Chinese nationals who are wanted in China—which Safeguard Defenders claims are usually political dissidents—to return home and face justice. Beijing insists that these facilities are basically volunteer consular service providers, set up to assist Chinese nationals abroad in keeping their paperwork current. Safeguard Defenders is calling on the European Union to investigate the facilities and their activities.
The North Korean government is claiming to have tested a “high-thrust solid-fuel motor” for a “new-type strategic weapon system.” Likely this would be a solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile, though for all I know they’re building a real-life Death Star. Presumably we’ll notice if that’s what it is.
One of Libya’s two prime ministers, Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh, admitted on Thursday to arranging the extradition of alleged bomb-maker Abu Agila Mohammad Masud, who appeared in a US court earlier this week to stand trial for his (again alleged) role in the 1988 bombing of a Pan Am flight over the Scottish city of Lockerbie. Dbeibeh has been taking criticism all week under the assumption that he was responsible for Masud’s extradition. He justified the decision to turn Masud over to Western authorities as an attempt to absolve Libya itself from blame for the bombing.
Amid the US-Africa summit currently taking place in Washington, Ghanaian President Nana Akufo-Addo alleged on Wednesday that Burkina Faso’s ruling junta has engaged the services of Russia’s Wagner Group private military company, turning a gold mine over to Wagner’s control in return for sending mercenaries to help deal with Burkina Faso’s jihadist violence crisis. There’s no confirmation of Akufo-Addo’s claim, though the junta did issue a new mining contract to a Russian firm earlier this month so that’s at least an interesting coincidence.
If this claim is true then it means Burkina Faso is going down the same road that Mali’s ruling junta went down starting about a year ago, contracting with Wagner while mostly severing its relationships with European countries that had previously been conducting peacekeeping and/or counter-terrorism operations there. Wagner’s arrival in Mali has coincided with a rise in alleged human rights violations and an overall worsening of the jihadist crisis, though on the plus side it’s likely Wagner and its friends have made a lot of money along the way. This also may confirm speculation that one of the motives behind the Ibrahim Traoré-led coup against Burkina Faso’s previous junta, back in September, was in part motivated by a desire to engage Wagner’s services.
CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
Speaking of countries that have chosen Wagner over European alternatives, the last French soldiers who had been deployed to the Central African Republic left that country on Thursday. The French military has had personnel in the CAR since 2013, though it substantially reduced its presence in 2016. The Central African government has increasingly turned toward Russia/Wagner for support against the country’s myriad rebel groups. The French government had cut its presence to just a few dozen personnel in response to the Russian involvement so this final departure isn’t going to make much of a difference. It’s more a symbolic demonstration of Paris’s irritation.
After days of discussions, the European Union has reportedly come to an internal agreement on a ninth tranche of Russian sanctions. Details are not yet available as I write this but there may be more to say about this tomorrow.
Elsewhere, Axios’s Barak Ravid reports that Russian pressure has so far convinced UN Secretary-General António Guterres not to investigate whether or not the Iranian government is providing drones to the Russian military. If Iran is providing Russia with drones, as seems likely, it arguably violates UN Security Council Resolution 2231, the 2015 document that codified the Iran nuclear deal. It would be a blow to Russian credibility, for whatever that’s worth, if it were shown to be receiving Iranian arms in violation of a resolution it helped pass. Part of the issue involves a question of whether Guterres has the power to order an investigation without a Security Council authorization vote, a vote Russia would surely veto. There is precedent that suggests he does, but for obvious reasons the Russians disagree.
Ukrainian Brigadier General Oleksiy Gromov told reporters on Thursday that the Russian military is hunkering down for a long war and suggested that Moscow still harbors designs on conquering all of Ukraine, despite everything that’s transpired over the past nine-plus months. It’s unclear on what basis he’s reached the latter conclusion but the former doesn’t seem like much of a stretch. Most of the fighting remains concentrated in eastern Ukraine, around Bakhmut and other parts of Donetsk oblast, though there have been reports of Russian shelling in Kherson and Zaporizhzhia oblasts as well.
Speaking of countries that are banking on a long conflict, the US military announced a new, expanded training program for Ukrainian soldiers on Thursday. The project will be run out of Germany and will see some 500 Ukrainian soldiers at a time brought there to work on combined arms maneuvers and other advanced tactics.
The Polish government is apparently delaying a European Union vote on a new package of financial aid to Ukraine and the adoption of a 15 percent global minimum corporate tax. These things had previously been held up by the Hungarian government, but Brussels and Budapest cut a deal earlier this week under which the Hungarians dropped their hold in return for assurances regarding EU funds earmarked for Hungary that have been frozen due to a rule of law dispute. It so happens that Poland is in the midst of a similar dispute with the EU and there’s a good chance Polish officials are seeking to cut a similar deal to the one Hungary received.
The Serbian government has formally asked NATO for permission to deploy security forces to northern Kosovo, amid ongoing tensions between Kosovan authorities and that region’s majority Serb population. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić acknowledged to state media on Thursday that the request is exceedingly unlikely to be approved, but said he wants to have NATO’s rejection on the record.
The Slovak government lost a no-confidence vote on Thursday, with 78 members of the 150 seat parliament voting for its ouster. This outcome was not terribly surprising, but it does leave Slovak politics in limbo. President Zuzana Čaputová will presumably ask Prime Minister Eduard Heger to remain in place in a caretaker capacity while she tries to determine whether another candidate might be able to form a government. It’s more likely that Slovakia is headed to a snap election, one that polls suggest could favor the opposition. This could have repercussions beyond Slovakia, as some opposition figures have expressed reticence about the European Union’s support for Ukraine and its sanctions against Russia.
The Peruvian Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that former President Pedro Castillo can be held for up to 18 months in pretrial detention as prosecutors attempt to put a case together on rebellion charges. The court cited the risk of Castillo fleeing the country as justification for its ruling. Several Latin American governments have expressed support for Castillo, suggesting that he would have somewhere to go if he did decide to make a run for it. The Peruvian Foreign Ministry has recalled its ambassadors to four of those countries—Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, and Mexico—for consultations after those governments issued a joint statement calling Castillo “a victim of undemocratic harassment.” At least 12 people have now died amid ongoing protests by Castillo reporters who have at times clashed violently with police.
A man later identified as a Nigerian national engaged in a firefight with guards at Guyanese President Irfaan Ali’s residence on Thursday, seriously wounding one of them before being seriously wounded himself. There’s no indication what motivated this attack, but Guyanese authorities have reportedly asked Interpol for help in trying to determine the attacker’s background and whether he has any links to militant or criminal groups.
The Honduran government and the UN signed a memorandum of understanding on Thursday that should see the formation of a new, UN-run Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras. This would be similar to the Organization of American States-led Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, which was active from 2016 until then-President Juan Orlando Hernández ended its mandate in 2020 because it had started investigating corruption involving Hernández himself and his inner circle. The UN and Honduras will still need to work out the details of the new commission and eventually sign a treaty establishing it, which will likely take some months to complete.
The Salvadoran Congress on Thursday voted to extend the country’s state of emergency for at least another month. President Nayib Bukele requested the state of emergency in late March, ostensibly over high levels of gang violence, and it’s been renewed every month since despite widespread concerns that authorities are using the extra powers that the emergency gives them to arrest political prisoners, restrict media outlets, and commit human rights abuses. Public support for the emergency measures is extremely high, mostly because Bukele’s government has achieved a substantial reduction in gang violence. However, it’s unclear how much the state of emergency has contributed to that reduction—violence was already coming down prior to the emergency declaration in March—or whether its impact has been worth the mass arrests and rights violations.
Finally, with the US Senate passing a whopping $858 billion military budget for 2023, Responsible Statecraft’s Stephen Semler wonders why the Pentagon’s answer for inflation is so vastly different from the answer that the US public is forced to accept:
The conference version of the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act that passed the House last week demonstrates that the United States has two distinct policy responses to inflation: one for the Pentagon, and one for the public.
Any real or imagined drop in the Pentagon’s buying power is met with more money. Inflation informed President Joe Biden’s requested $31 billion boost from fiscal year 2022 to 2023, and the issue is Congress’s primary justification for upping that proposed increase to $76 billion. If enacted into law, the NDAA will spike military spending to $858 billion in fiscal year 2023 — excluding supplemental funding for Ukraine military aid — putting even peak Cold War-era Pentagon budgets to shame.
The public gets a much different treatment. In inflationary times, Biden and most of Congress think that the Pentagon should get more money and the public should get less. Pandemic relief programs were ended in an ill-fated attempt to curb rising costs. Now nearly two-thirds of Americans are living paycheck to paycheck. For most workers, real wages have failed to keep up with inflation over the past year. While Biden endorsed the NDAA’s historic topline figure, he hasn’t proposed any legislation that would lend the public a hand during a spiraling cost-of-living crisis.
In other words, only for the Pentagon is federal spending considered a solution to inflation. Non-military spending, meanwhile, is routinely blamed for causing inflation, despite there being far more relevant culprits like corporate greed, the war in Ukraine, Western sanctions on Russia, and the seismic disruptions to the global supply chain caused by the pandemic.
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