World roundup: December 19 2023
Stories from Yemen, Myanmar, Serbia, and elsewhere
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As I mentioned on Sunday, this will be FX’s last regularly scheduled roundup of 2023. Barring any unforeseen complications we will resume normal operations on Sunday, January 7. Between now and then I’ll be posting our usual history nuggets and if I feel there is a need I will try to offer occasional news updates along the way. Let me take this opportunity to once again thank you all for reading and supporting Foreign Exchanges in 2023. Happy Holidays and I’ll see you next year!
TODAY IN HISTORY
December 19, 1946: The Battle of Hanoi marks the start of the 1946-1954 First Indochina War. The battle began when Việt Minh forces bombed Hanoi’s power plant and under cover of darkness began attacking French forces in the city. The Việt Minh eventually had to withdraw in the face of superior French numbers in February 1947, though of course they would eventually win the war. The outcome was a partition of Vietnam into northern and southern states—which ended when North Vietnam won the Vietnam War—and the ouster of French forces from the region.
December 19, 1984: British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang sign the Sino-British Joint Declaration in Beijing. The declaration set July 1, 1997, as the date upon which the British government would turn control of Hong Kong, including Kowloon and the New Territories, over to the Chinese government.
Tuesday began with the United Nations Security Council expected to vote on a resolution that includes some sort of call for a ceasefire and/or increased humanitarian aid for Gaza, but it ended with that vote having been delayed for at least another day. Which means, in so many words, that council members have so far been unable to convince the Biden administration to drop its veto. The vote had been scheduled for Monday only to be delayed to Tuesday, and could be delayed still further in what may be a vain hope of gaining US acquiescence. Then again, one assumes that the countries pushing for this resolution are going to tire of getting the run-around from Washington at some point and put the resolution up for a vote without an agreement. That will force the administration to cast another politically and geopolitically divisive veto. Well, OK, the administration isn’t really going to be “forced” to do that, but I assume you get my meaning.
If a resolution does emerge there’s no reason to believe that it will affect the Israeli war effort in any way. UNSC resolutions are famously “binding” but unenforceable, unless somebody is prepared to enforce them and in this case the US will ensure that there is not. Beyond that general impotence, any resolution that passes muster with the US government will surely be worded in so milquetoast a fashion as to allow, explicitly, the Israeli government to continue doing what it’s doing.
In other news:
The Israeli military (IDF) continued to pound Gaza relentlessly on Tuesday, to I assume no particular surprise. The UN Relief and Works Agency now estimates that the IDF has damaged or destroyed roughly 60 percent of Gaza’s infrastructure and has displaced some 90 percent of the territory’s roughly 2.3 million residents. The official death toll from Gazan health officials is approaching 20,000 and the real death toll has by now likely exceeded that figure. Most of them were civilians, though “Israeli military officials” somberly informed Reuters on Tuesday that a high civilian death toll is simply the “cost of crushing Hamas.” Apparently it’s a cost the Israeli government is happy to let Gazans pay, though I think it’s probably important to note that we’re taking it for granted that the IDF is actually “crushing Hamas” amid all the violence. I don’t think there’s a way to know that to any degree of certainty.
Outside the UN, talks on reviving the previous ceasefire/prisoner exchange agreement are continuing though the parties reportedly aren’t approaching a deal yet. The head of Hamas’s political wing, Ismail Haniyeh, is reportedly bound for Egypt on Wednesday to continue the discussions, which presumably means they’ve made progress even if nothing is imminent as yet, and Israeli President Isaac Herzog told a group of ambassadors on Tuesday that “Israel is ready” for a second ceasefire. Barak Ravid at Axios is reporting that the Israeli government has offered a seven day ceasefire in return for the release of 40 hostages, which would be roughly half the number who were released during last month’s one week ceasefire. I’m speculating but I could imagine the Biden administration leaning heavily on the Israelis to make an offer like this to short-circuit the ceasefire effort at the UNSC.
According to CNN, the Israeli government is considering a plan to build a “humanitarian compound” in northern Gaza to house displaced Palestinians. There are no details yet but in theory this is supposed to allow the IDF to tell the people it’s displaced from northern Gaza to southern Gaza that it now wants to displace them back to northern Gaza. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant suggested on Monday that some of those people might be able to go back north soon, but as there’s little in northern Gaza but rubble the only conceivable way to relocate them would involve the construction of some sort of facility like this. The plan would only proceed once the IDF believes it’s flushed out any remaining pockets of militants in the north so it’s anybody’s guess what sort of time table might be in the offing.
Human Rights Watch on Monday issued a new report accusing the IDF of “using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare” in Gaza. As evidence, HRW cited not just the conditions in Gaza but also several “public statements” made by Israeli officials over the past two and a half months “expressing their aim to deprive civilians in Gaza of food, water and fuel.” Those officials, and some in the Biden administration as well, have openly admitted that what’s happening in Gaza is a form of collective punishment, which is supposed to be against the rules of the “rules-based order.” Normally the US government at least pretends to care about that sort of thing.
The IDF claimed on Tuesday that it had killed Subhi Ferwana, a “prominent financier” for Hamas, in an airstrike in the southern Gazan city of Rafah. There’s no confirmation of this but if true he would be one of the most senior Hamas officials/associates the Israelis have killed since the October 7 militant attacks in southern Israel. Hamas has not, as far as I know, confirmed Ferwana’s death.
The IDF says it’s “investigating” reports that a number of people detained during its Gazan ground operation have died in Israeli custody. There’s no indication how many people this concerns. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported earlier on Tuesday that “several” have died in an Israeli facility near Beersheba where they have been “blindfolded and handcuffed for most of the day and the lights are on at the facility throughout the night.”
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin briefed representatives of 43 countries plus the European Union and NATO on Tuesday regarding the new task force the US military formed to protect Red Sea shipping from attacks by Houthi rebels in northern Yemen. It appears he was hoping to bring at least some of them into the operation, which right now only includes ten countries and notably just one Arab state (that being Bahrain). The latter in particular could be a source of embarrassment for the Biden administration. The Houthis, for their part, insisted on Tuesday that they have no intention of stopping their attacks regardless of any international response. Major international shipping firms that have sworn off of the Red Sea shipping lane because of those attacks appear, according to The Wall Street Journal, to be taking a wait and see approach to the new operation and still seem intent on steering clear of the region for now.
The Biden administration on Tuesday blacklisted four people and ten entities allegedly involved in Iran’s military drone program. In addition to Iran the new sanctions affect firms in Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Malaysia.
Bangladeshi Railway Minister Nurul Islam Sujon has accused the opposition Bangladesh National Party of causing a fire on a passenger train in Dhaka on Tuesday that killed at least four people. BNP officials denied the allegation and suggested the government may have caused the fire itself to try to discredit the party. As far as I know there’s no indication yet what caused the fire, so it may be a bit premature to be accusing anyone of arson.
According to The New York Times, Myanmar’s ruling junta has taken to abducting men in order to address a military manpower shortage:
At least 16 young men disappeared last month.
In four cities across Myanmar, under cover of darkness, armed groups took them to police stations, according to family members and some of the men themselves. Some were released after paying ransoms. In other cases, failure to pay led to forced conscription into the military. Other men simply vanished.
Such disappearances began after Myanmar’s military seized power in February 2021. But they appear to have accelerated in recent weeks, at a time when the military is facing the most serious challenge to its rule since the coup. In October, three ethnic rebel armies started the biggest offensive against the government in nearly three years.
The New York Times confirmed the abductions of 16 men in November, through interviews with men who had been released or with relatives of others. In some cases, it is unclear where they were taken and why. In a country that is functionally locked down by the military junta, information is hard to come by, and it is difficult to determine the exact number of disappearances.
But the accounts have sent a chill through communities. Family members are instructing men and boys to stay home. Parents are pulling their sons out of school.
The Japanese, South Korean, and US governments announced on Tuesday that they’ve created a new joint system to monitor North Korean missile launches in “real-time.” The only innovation here as far as I can tell is that South Korea and Japan are going to share their information directly without passing it through the US, which is indicative of their improved relationship. The aim will be to “institutionalize” that data sharing so that if the bilateral relationship worsens again it won’t affect this particular effort.
The Sudanese military confirmed on Tuesday that it has pulled out of Wad Madani, putting that city firmly under the control of the Rapid Support Forces. There have been reports of airstrikes on parts of the city, which is how the military typically responds after it’s been run out of a place by the RSF. There are also reports of heavy airstrikes in parts of the Darfur region. These aren’t going to dislodge the RSF from places it’s already seized, but they do pose a significant risk to civilians.
The Egyptian government declared on Tuesday that the latest round of regional negotiations over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam have collapsed. The Egyptian and Sudanese governments have been concerned about the GERD’s impact on Nile valley water levels for several years now but have never been able to reach an accord with the Ethiopian government over the dam’s management. Ethiopia completed filling the dam’s reservoir earlier this year and getting past that step should in theory lower tensions over the issue, though Cairo in particular remains concerned about the dam’s impact during periods of low rainfall.
The Spanish Navy has reportedly confirmed that a Maltese-flagged cargo vessel that reported a hijacking off the Somali coast on Friday was indeed hijacked. There have been a couple of hijacking incidents near Somalia in recent weeks that have been subsumed into concerns about Houthi attacks on shipping (see above) but that appear to be a separate issue involving a potential resurgence of Somali piracy. The threat of Somali pirates really became an issue in the early 2000s and escalated into a serious threat to commerce in the late 2000s and into the early 2010s. But it tapered off under international pressure and Friday’s incident may be the first successful act of Somali piracy since 2017 (a failed hijacking late last month probably also involved Somali pirates).
Allied Democratic Forces fighters attacked a village in western Uganda early Tuesday morning, killing at least 10 people. The ADF began its existence as a Ugandan rebel group in the 1990s before migrating into the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, but it still carries out occasional attacks inside Uganda.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
The UN Security Council voted on Tuesday to start winding down its DRC peacekeeping mission, MONUSCO, one year ahead of schedule. The council was responding to a request from Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi and voted one day before Tshisekedi is likely to win reelection. Given the mission’s inability to keep anything resembling peace it’s unclear how much its absence will be noticed.
With Ukraine running out of air defense ammunition the Biden administration is reportedly seeking some assistance from Japan:
Japan is expected this week to formalize a change in policy that will enable it to export several dozen Patriot missiles to the United States, a move that would backfill Washington’s stockpiles. That would give Washington flexibility to send more of the sophisticated air defenses to Ukraine, which is in desperate need as Kyiv gears up for punishing Russian airstrikes this winter.
The change — a modification in defense export rules — will not explicitly mention the Patriot system but will meet a key request by the Biden administration, said U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because discussions are ongoing.
Japan manufactures missiles for the Patriot, the U.S. military’s premier air defense system, under license from Raytheon.
The International Election Observation Mission issued a statement on Tuesday regarding Sunday’s parliamentary and municipal election in Serbia. The Gang apparently had some concerns about how the election was conducted, saying that it was “marred by isolated instances of violence, procedural irregularities and frequent allegations of organizing and busing of voters to support the ruling party in local elections” and that “further instances of serious irregularities, including vote-buying and ballot box stuffing, were observed.” The ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) appears to have won a sole majority in the next parliament, though it may seek coalition partners to pad out its margin a bit. Opposition parties are crying foul, particularly regarding the close municipal election in Belgrade where they claim the SNS brought people in from Bosnia to vote illegally.
The Russian Foreign Ministry summoned Finland’s ambassador in Moscow on Tuesday to lodge a complaint after the Finnish government reached agreement on a new mutual defense pact with the US earlier this week. The pact hasn’t gone into effect yet but it mirrors deals the US has with several other NATO member states that give the US military access to bases in those countries. The problem from the Kremlin’s perspective is that Finland isn’t just any other NATO member, it’s a NATO member that directly borders Russia. Russian officials have threatened to take unspecified action to “counter” the arrangement.
Responsible Statecraft’s William LeoGrande doesn’t think very highly of the Biden administration’s Cuba policy:
In short, there is no longer any legitimate rationale whatsoever for Cuba being designated a state sponsor of terrorism. Cuba stays on the list because the Biden administration does not have the political courage to remove it — even though Cuba and the United States have a Memorandum of Agreement and active dialogue on counter-terrorism cooperation!
Various U.S. officials have offered different stories about whether the Biden administration is reviewing Cuba’s designation. Shortly after Biden’s inauguration, then-White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said it was under review, along with the rest of Trump’s Cuba policies. More recently, in March 2023, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was browbeaten by Rep. Maria Salazar (R-Fla.) into declaring it was not being reviewed. A number of Democratic members of Congress who have been pushing the administration to take Cuba off the list were given the impression by Biden officials that the policy was being reviewed — until Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Eric Jacobstein told them last week that it was not. They were livid, according to a report in The Intercept.
Treating Cuba’s listing like a political poker chip has real costs, not only to Cuba but to the United States as well. Most obviously, it delegitimizes the list itself, reducing it to little more than an arbitrary political cudgel.
Finally, at Forever Wars Spencer Ackerman reports on a new effort to pressure the US military into acknowledging the civilians it’s been killing in Somalia:
A COALITION OF SOMALI AND INTERNATIONAL human rights groups have informed the Pentagon that even in cases of "civilian harm confirmed by the U.S. government," Somalis who have lost loved ones to U.S. military strikes have received no acknowledgement—let alone recompense—from Washington.
"Even as we have contacted [the U.S. government] in every way we know how, we have never been able to even start a process of getting justice. The U.S. has never even acknowledged our existence," said Abubakar Dahir Mohammad, surviving brother of Luul Dahir Mohammad and surviving uncle of Luul's 4-year old daughter Mariam Shiloh Muse, whom a U.S. drone strike killed on Apr. 1, 2018. His quote was given to the African publication The Continent.
Twenty-four human rights groups from Somalia and abroad included his quote in a letter they delivered to the Pentagon on Monday morning. The letter, seeking redress, underscores the casual manner with which the U.S. leaves gaping emotional and material wounds in people caught in the maw of the open-ended War on Terror long after slaying their relatives. A copy was shared with FOREVER WARS.
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