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World roundup: December 21 2021
Stories from Iraq, Libya, Russia, and more
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Friends, it’s time for FX to take its annual holiday vacation. I can always tell when it’s late December because I start losing the ability to comprehend written language, which means it’s definitely time to take an extended break from the newsletter. Barring any unforeseen developments our roundups will return no later than January 11 and most likely on January 4 (I’m leaving myself a little wiggle room). I do have a few items that will go out over the break, and if any really big international news breaks I may pop back in to talk about it, so we won’t be entirely out of touch. Nevertheless, I’d like to take this opportunity to wish all of you Happy Holidays and thank you for supporting this newsletter in 2021 and into the future. Quite literally, I couldn’t do it without you!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
December 20 (or thereabouts), 1192: Duke Leopold I of Austria imprisons King Richard I of England as the latter is returning home from the Third Crusade. Leopold had several grievances with Richard. Richard had personally treated him badly during the Crusade, for example. But his chief complaint was that Richard had (allegedly…OK, probably) arranged the assassination of the proclaimed King of Jerusalem, Conrad of Montferrat, who was Leopold’s cousin. Pope Celestine III excommunicated Leopold for his transgression, while Leopold turned Richard over to Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who had his own grievances with England (Celestine also excommunicated Henry). Henry, who needed money more than he needed to punish Richard, ransomed him back to England for the tidy sum of 150,000 marks.
December 20, 1989: In “Operation Just Cause,” the US military invades Panama with the goal of removing dictator Manuel Noriega from power. Publicly Noriega, an erstwhile US ally, had run afoul of the Reagan and then Bush administrations by playing both sides of the drug trade—something he’d started doing alongside the US as part of the Iran-Contra operation. Theories abound as to the real justification for the invasion, from the Pentagon’s desire to test out new military hardware, Noriega’s involvement with and therefore knowledge of Iran-Contra, George Bush’s political need to look tough, and Noriega’s diplomatic outreach to countries like Castro-led Cuba and Sandinista-run Nicaragua. According to the US military its invasion killed just over 200 civilians, but more credible assessments put that figure somewhere between 500 and 3000.
December 21, 1822: An Egyptian army under Ibrahim Pasha defeats the Ottomans at the Battle of Konya.
December 21, 1907: The Chilean army massacres a group of striking miners and their families in the city of Iquique. The killings are known as the Santa María School massacre, named after the Domingo Santa María school where the striking miners had made camp. The death toll is thought to have been between 2000 and around 3600—a definitive count is all but impossible since the authorities dumped the bodies into a mass grave that wasn’t exhumed until 1940. The massacre broke the strike and set back the Chilean labor movement.
December 21, 1988: Pan Am Flight 103 explodes over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing all 259 people on board as well as 11 people on the ground. Questions as to who carried out the bombing have never been entirely settled. Among the prime suspects are/were the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, the Palestinian Popular Struggle Front, and the Iranian government, possibly as retribution for the US shooting down Iran Air Flight 655 earlier in the year. There was also suspicion that a clandestine CIA smuggling operation was used by terrorists, perhaps in collaboration with the Syrian government, to get the bomb on board the flight. Most suspicion, however, fell on Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. The only person ever convicted in court in connection with the bombing was Libyan intelligence officer Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was found guilty by a specially convened Scottish court in the Netherlands. The US government has since charged a Libyan bomb maker, Abu Agilah Masud, in connection with the attack. He’s already in prison in Libya. Gaddafi accepted responsibility for the bombing in 2003, but he did so under duress as it was a requirement for sanctions relief. He consistently denied any knowledge of the plot and there remains (at least in some circles) suspicion that the evidence against Libya was manufactured by the US and UK governments.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
According to officials at Sanaa’s airport, Saudi airstrikes have shut down humanitarian relief flights into northern Yemen. They’re asking the United Nations to intervene to halt the strikes so that aid flights can resume. The Saudis attacked what they claim were military targets at the airport, primarily associated with the Houthis’ drone program, on Monday. They insist their strikes were targeted so as not to interfere with ordinary airport functions, though the war in Yemen has shown that the Saudis aren’t always all that precise with their attacks. Saudi Arabia has the airport blockaded for most purposes but has made an exception for aid flights.
The Turkish lira made a fairly remarkable comeback late Monday and into Tuesday, after President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced measures to combat its recent losses in value. In particular, Erdoğan announced that his government will insure savings in lira against future losses of value. I am not a financial guy so let’s go with The Wall Street Journal’s explanation:
The new instrument will consist of special “currency rate protected” accounts with a minimum of three months, the finance ministry said. The government plans to compensate for any depreciation in the lira between the time the account is open and when it is closed, the statement said.
It will work like this: Turks will deposit their savings in the special accounts at any commercial bank for a period of three, six, nine or 12 months, with a minimum interest rate the same as the benchmark rate set by the central bank. At the end of that time, if the value of the lira declines against the dollar in excess of that rate, the government will fill the gap, depositing the difference in lira in the same account, according to the finance ministry.
That means that if the lira fell 25% annually against the dollar—a nine percentage point difference from the current policy rate of 14%—the central bank would make up that difference for savers.
The goal is to get more people to save in lira, rather than in some alternative like dollars, euros, gold, etc. And the effect was immediate and stunning, with the lira rising from over 18 per dollar at midday Monday to just over 11 per dollar early Tuesday before dropping again. At last check it was trading around 13 per dollar, but by the time you read this that’s likely to have changed.
Needless to say currencies aren’t supposed to be this volatile, and there’s a substantial risk that if this rally tapers off or reverses the Turkish government could wind up owing a lot of people a lot of money. Erdoğan is clearly feeling the political heat for his refusal to raise interest rates in response to the lira’s decline and it’s unclear how well he’s thought this plan through.
It’s still unclear what Muqtada al-Sadr’s plans are, but it looks like Iraqi politics will finally have an organized opposition instead of a bloated national unity government. Two smaller parties, the New Generation Movement and Imtidad, announced their decision not to enter the new government last week. Together they won a total of 18 seats in October’s election but there’s a possibility now that more parties will opt to follow their lead and stay out of the government. Since the US invasion in 2003 every Iraqi government has been of the unity variety, which probably helps explain why they’ve gotten very little done (other than enriching party bosses, I guess). Sadr, whose bloc emerged as the largest in parliament in October, has made hints about going into the opposition, but it’s more likely he’ll be the kingmaker in the new administration.
Israeli occupation forces killed one Palestinian man near the northern West Bank town of Jenin on Tuesday after he allegedly tried to ram a security checkpoint in his car. Tensions in the northern West Bank remain high after Thursday’s attack on a group of Israelis near the abandoned/unauthorized settlement at Homesh in which one Israeli settler was killed.
The Arab Center’s Kristian Coates Ulrichsen has an interesting look at the political narrative around Mohammed bin Salman’s recent regional diplomatic blitz. Normally I’d excerpt part of it here, but this roundup is already going to be too long as it is so I’ll just say if you’re a fan of the intrigues of Persian Gulf geopolitics you should click through and read it.
Iranian state media is reporting that Tehran’s “ambassador” to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hassan Irloo, has died of COVID. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Houthis were keen to send Irloo back to Iran for political reasons and suggested they might use COVID as a justification to request a medical evacuation from the Saudis (recall the air blockade I mentioned earlier). The Saudis then gave permission for the evacuation over the weekend. His demise indicates either that the COVID infection was real or that the Iranians are way too invested in backing up their cover stories. Presumably the former. It is still entirely possible that the Houthis wanted Irloo gone independent of his health status, but that also seems less likely in light of this development. Iranian officials are now blaming the Saudis for delaying the evacuation until it was too late to save Irloo’s life.
Thousands of supporters of former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili demonstrated in Tbilisi on Tuesday after a group of doctors who had examined him reported signs that he’d been tortured while in government custody. Saakashvili returned to Georgia after years abroad in October and was almost immediately arrested, having been convicted and sentenced in absentia in 2017 and 2018 on allegations that he abused the power of his former office. Protest organizers are calling for a mass hunger strike outside of Saakashvili’s United National Movement party offices in an effort to pressure Georgian authorities to release him. It’s unclear how many people intend to participate.
According to Reuters, the UN is mulling over a plan to provide $6 million to the interior ministry of Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government to pay for wages and a food allowance for Afghan personnel guarding UN facilities in the country. The ministry is run by Sirajuddin Haqqani, leader of the ultra-violent and heavily sanctioned Haqqani Network. The US bounty on his head is bigger ($10 million) than this potential UN outlay, which I think illustrates how absurd things have gotten here overall.
The Chinese government on Tuesday blacklisted four members of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, in retaliation for a host of recent actions by the Biden administration and the US Congress, everything from the announced US diplomatic boycott of February’s Olympics in Beijing to measures related to alleged human rights violations in Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang. All four will be barred from entering China and will have any economic assets in China seized.
According to Reuters, interim Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok is hours away from tendering his resignation, which could implode whatever is left of the country’s already shaky transition to democratic governance. Hamdok has been Sudanese PM since August 2019, save for the roughly one month after he was ousted in a military coup in October. The junta eventually reappointed him as PM last month, but at the head of a civilian government that is now clearly subordinate to, rather than partnered with, the Sudanese military. But anti-junta protesters—hundreds of thousands of whom turned out this past weekend in demonstrations during which at least two people were killed and at least 13 people were reportedly raped by security forces—have rejected the deal that restored Hamdok, and he may feel that he lacks the political support to remain as PM
Libyan High National Electoral Commission director Imad al-Sayeh has reportedly ordered regional and local elections offices and electoral committees to stand down, which all but ensures that Friday’s presidential election will be postponed. Some kind of delay has long been rumored but this, if true (and the HNEC has apparently confirmed that it is), would be the first official signal. The vote has been plagued by disputes over the electoral law published by House of Representatives speaker Aguila Saleh earlier this year as well as formal challenges to several candidacies, including those of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi and former interim Prime Minister Abdul Hamid Dbeibeh. The HNEC hasn’t even published an official list of candidates yet, which has made campaigning impossible and has left lesser-known candidates in a real lurch.
There’s been no formal announcement of a postponement yet (at least one report claims that the HNEC and the House of Representatives are arguing about which of them is responsible for making that announcement) and so obviously there’s been no announcement of a new date for the election. But there is some fear of a resumption of Libya’s civil war, whose end this vote was supposed to signal. The appearance of militia fighters on the outskirts of Tripoli on Tuesday no doubt reinforces that fear. The postponement could trigger conflict, but so could a decision to hold a deeply flawed and likely hotly disputed election. In fact, with several of the leading candidates seemingly in agreement that a delay is in order, it seems likely that going forward with the election would be the quicker path to renewed violence.
The French military says that it killed Soumana Boura, allegedly a senior figure in the Islamic State’s “Greater Sahara” affiliate who has been wanted in connection with the killing of six aid workers and two local guides in a Nigerien park back in August 2020, in an airstrike on Monday. Boura is believed to have filmed the murders for online distribution. Nice guy, apparently.
According to the Nigerian government, somewhere in the neighborhood of 45 people were killed in an outbreak of inter-communal violence in Nasarawa state over the weekend. The victims were ethnic Tiv farmers, who were attacked by a mob of Fulani herdsmen from Friday through Sunday. The attacks were retaliation for the death of a Fulani individual who’d allegedly been killed by members of the Tiv community. While this incident may have had a more specific trigger, violence between herders and farmers in Nigeria is increasingly common as the two groups compete for dwindling water and arable land resources. Those conflicts take on ethnic and religious dimensions, since the herders are predominantly Fulani and Muslim while the farmers come from a variety of communities, most of which are predominantly Christian.
Elsewhere, Nigerian authorities say their airstrikes killed more than 100 Islamic State West Africa Province fighters in northeastern Borno state last week.
At least seven people were killed and 50 wounded on Tuesday in fighting between two nominally aligned security forces in Somalia’s Puntland region. The president of Puntland, Said Abdullahi Deni, has been at odds with a US-trained unit called the “Puntland Security Forces” after firing, or at least attempting to fire, that unit’s commander, Mohamoud Osman Diyano, last month. Diyano is the brother of Deni’s predecessor and I gather there are some political rivalry issues here. On Tuesday, the PSF and forces loyal to Deni battled one another in the regional capital, Bosaso. It’s unclear what sparked the clash.
Mozambican soldiers reportedly attacked an insurgent camp in the country’s restive Cabo Delgado province on Sunday, killing ten militants. An influx of foreign support has helped Mozambique tamp down the Islamist uprising in Cabo Delgado, and according to President Filipe Nyusi the number of insurgent attacks declined from more than 160 in 2020 to 52 this year. Granted the year isn’t over yet, but that seems like a pretty significant reduction.
The Biden administration reportedly expects to hold talks with the Russian government in January over its grievances with NATO and European security issues more broadly. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried told reporters on Tuesday that whenever the talks take place—and no date has been set as yet—they will also include European governments, though whether they’d participate directly or in consultation with the US is unclear. Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin told his Ministry of Defense on Tuesday that he’s prepared to take “military-technical measures,” whatever that means, against NATO if his demands are not satisfied. While amassing tens of thousands of soldiers near the Ukrainian border, Putin has accused Ukraine and the West of adopting an “aggressive” posture.
Speaking of Russia’s troop buildup, The Washington Post’s David Ignatius—whose opinions are generally horrifying but who is certainly well-connected enough to have inside information—says the US may help supply and support “stay behind” guerrilla networks in Ukraine in case of a Russian invasion. You may remember this plan from such Cold War-era projects as supporting the Afghan Mujaheddin and the “Operation Gladio”-style stay behind units the US set up across Europe. And certainly we can all agree that nothing bad ever came of those things. Seems like a no brainer to me.
The UN human rights office on Tuesday called on both the Belarusian and Polish governments to take measures to care for thousands of refugees still stranded along their border in the wake of the migrant crisis earlier this year. If you recall, waves of migrants flowed through Belarus and attempted to enter the European Union through the fall, as European leaders accused the Belarusian government of “weaponizing” them to destabilize the bloc. Belarus has since agreed to repatriate most of the migrants but it’s refused to take responsibility for a number of them who were stranded on the Polish side of the border. Of course the anti-immigrant Polish government has refused to take responsibility for them either, even just to take them in temporarily and then repatriate them. The refugees are now wandering back and forth between the two countries with barely any shelter or food.
The Belgian military said on Tuesday that it’s been battling a major cyberattack since Thursday. The attack exploited a newly-publicized vulnerability in Log4j, a program that allows software to track past activities. As you might expect, Belgian officials didn’t go into any detail about the affected systems but they seem to think they’ve got a handle on the incursion at this point.
Brazil’s Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA), the country’s environmental enforcement agency, has carried out perhaps the most comprehensive illegal logging bust in its history:
Ibama identified more than 220 companies and 21 logging concessions involved in various schemes disguising the origin of illegal wood, according to the documents seen by Reuters.
The environmental agency will place embargoes on the companies this week to prevent them from selling wood and will hand out more than 50 million reais ($8.76 million) in fines, the documents said.
Ibama has also passed on the findings to public prosecutors and police for further criminal investigation, the documents said.
Many of the companies apparently existed only as cutouts, collecting permits for legal logging and then selling them to entities doing illegal logging, who attached the permits to their products in an effort to get around official restrictions. Ibama has no prosecutorial authority and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro would grind the entire Amazon into sawdust for $20, so the chances of anything more serious than fines emerging from this bust are probably slim.
Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s Eli Clifton and Annelle Sheline delve into another example of financial conflicts of interest in the DC think tank world:
A just-released report by the Democratic Party-aligned Center for American Progress* entitled “Strategic Reengagement in the Middle East,” was largely authored and shaped by individuals with financial ties to Israel, the weapons industry, or the United Arab Emirates, running counter to the think tank’s own efforts to distance itself from Gulf funding. None of these ties were disclosed as potential conflicts of interests by CAP or the report’s authors.
The past 20 years have been a golden era for Middle East experts. For a think tank or analyst specializing in the region — whether it be terrorism, military, or oil — funding and attention have not been difficult to procure.
Meanwhile, the overwhelming focus of the United States on the Middle East has also contributed to a steady stream of money from the region, specifically from wealthy Gulf states. Countries like the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and Oman fund D.C. think tanks and sponsor endowed chairs at American universities. All involved have tended to benefit except, perhaps, those in the U.S. military who have served in the region and its inhabitants, many of whom continue to suffer from violence, corruption, and deprivation.
That flow of money from authoritarian Gulf-state governments into Washington research institutions has faced growing scrutiny since the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, but those concerns seem to have been discarded with CAP’s latest report on U.S.-policy in the Middle East.
One of the report’s co-authors is an executive with the Middle East Institute, whose largest donor is the UAE. One of the people thanked in the report’s acknowledgements is on the board of directors of General Dynamics, one of the largest defense contractors in the US. And, weirdly enough, among the reports recommendations is a call for the US to sell more weapons to the UAE. Go figure!