World roundup: December 22 2022
Stories from Afghanistan, Ukraine, Venezuela, and elsewhere
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PROGRAMMING NOTE: As I said on Tuesday, it’s time for FX’s holiday break. Barring any unforeseen developments, tonight’s roundup will be our last of 2022 and I’ll be returning to regular programming on January 8. I will have a few things to send out here and there and I’m hoping optimistically that we’ll have another new contributor ready to start contributing just after the new year. Happy Holidays and thank you for reading and for making this a great year here at Foreign Exchanges. See you in 2023!
THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
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 22, 1522: The Siege of Rhodes ends with an Ottoman victory and the displacement of the Knights of Rhodes.
December 22, 1769: The Sino-Burmese War ends with a Burmese victory. The border between Qing China and Burma was weakly demarcated if at all, which prompted several efforts on both sides to encroach on the frontier. This “war” actually consisted of four separate Chinese invasions starting in 1765, each of which was defeated by the Burmese. The outcome went a long way toward defining the Chinese-Burmese/Myanmar border as it exists today. It also, as a side effect, forced the Burmese to give up their designs on Siam (modern Thailand), since they couldn’t invade Siam and guard against Chinese invasion at the same time.
December 22, 1894: French army captain Alfred Dreyfus is convicted of treason for supposedly passing classified information to German intelligence. The ensuing “Dreyfus Affair,” which ended with his pardon in 1906, was a public scandal that focused on the absurd weakness of the evidence against Dreyfus and a bizarre criminal proceeding that managed to convict him twice while acquitting the actual spy, French counter-intelligence officer Ferdinand Walsin Esterhazy. At the core of the Dreyfus case was deeply-rooted antisemitism, whose very public emergence motivated journalist Theodor Herzl to organize the First Zionist Congress in 1897. That congress is generally regarded as the beginning of the Zionist movement.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
Three fighters affiliated with the separatist Southern Transitional Council were killed and three more wounded on Wednesday by a bombing in Yemen’s Abyan province. A spokesperson for the Southern Armed Forces faction suggested that al-Qaeda may have been responsible.
Two Iraqi soldiers were killed and three wounded in a bombing in Iraq’s Erbil province on Wednesday. There’s been no claim of responsibility but it’s likely Islamic State was the culprit. It’s been an active week for likely IS attacks in Iraq, after a bombing on Sunday killed nine Iraqi police officers in Kirkuk province and a shooting left at least eight people dead in Anbar province on Monday.
Israeli occupation forces killed one Palestinian and wounded five others in the West Bank city of Nablus on Thursday. The Israeli forces were escorting a group of pilgrims to the “Joseph’s Tomb” site when they claim they came under attack and returned fire in, all together now, self-defense. I’d suggest that the Israeli government investigate the shooting, but would it surprise you to know that, between 2017 and 2021, less than 1 percent of all complaints made against Israeli forces for their treatment of the Palestinians resulted in indictments? I know, I was stunned too. According to Israeli rights organization Yesh Din, authorities only opened criminal investigations into 21.4 percent of those complaints. It’s as if the Israeli government gives its security forces almost total impunity when it comes to dealing with Palestinians.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan reported to his cabinet on Thursday that the ongoing Azerbaijani blockade of the majority Armenian Nagorno-Karabakh enclave is causing shortages of food and other “essential goods.” A group of what the Azerbaijani government claims are private protesters has been blockading the Lachin corridor since December 12, ostensibly over environmental damage caused by alleged illegal mining by Karabakh residents. In reality these protesters are almost certainly backed by Azerbaijani authorities and have cut the only road linking Karabakh to Armenia in an effort to pressure Pashinyan into making concessions to Baku. Pashinyan also criticized the Russian soldiers who are serving as peacekeepers in and around Karabakh but apparently have decided that lifting this blockade isn’t part of their mandate.
Responsible Statecraft’s Giorgio Cafiero reports that a spate of recent terrorist attacks targeting foreign nationals threatens to exacerbate the Afghan government’s “international isolation”:
Since the Taliban’s takeover in August 2021, a host of countries have kept their diplomatic missions open in Afghanistan. These include China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, and Turkey. Yet, if these governments conclude that their diplomats aren’t safe in Taliban-governed Afghanistan, the rulers in Kabul will have more difficulty escaping international isolation.
This act of terrorism at the Longan Hotel followed other recent attacks against Pakistan and Russia’s diplomatic presence in Afghanistan. On December 2, ISKP was responsible for an assassination attempt on Pakistani chargé d’affaires Ubaid-ur-Rehman Nizamani. Three months earlier, Islamic State’s Afghan franchise killed two Russian diplomats in a suicide bombing outside their country’s embassy in Kabul.
“The Taliban couldn’t secure or protect those embassies and that was a major blow to them. This attack [on December 12] happened despite the fact that [on December 11] the Chinese officials had met with the Taliban deputy ministry of foreign affairs,” Ahmad Shah Katawazai, a former Afghan diplomat, told Responsible Statecraft. “Chinese officials had asked for a tightening of security around the embassy and for Chinese citizens and despite that this happened…These [ISKP] attacks on foreign entities and expatriates…are very concerning for the Taliban.”
The Philippine military has decided to increase its naval presence in the South China Sea, following reports that China is building on four unpopulated land masses in the disputed Spratly Islands chain. Philippine officials say they’ve been monitoring unspecified “Chinese activities” and specifically mentioned a potential threat to the security of Pagasa (also known as Thitu) island, the second largest of the Spratlys and the largest of them under Philippine control. The island lies near Subi, a reef that the China has artificially expanded and upon which it’s built military facilities.
The Chinese government announced new sanctions against two US nationals on Friday in retaliation for sanctions the Biden administration recently imposed over alleged Tibetan human rights violations. The blacklisting mirrors similar measures taken by the US, meaning that any assets they have in China will be frozen and they’ll be barred from traveling to China or engaging with Chinese nationals or Chinese organizations in any official capacity.
Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, who probably should be former PM at this point, called out the country’s military on Thursday to help police “maintain order,” to borrow the AP’s terminology. Bainimarama is pointedly refusing to concede defeat in this month’s parliamentary election, despite the fact that rival Sitiveni Rabuka has amassed a three party coalition that holds a collective parliamentary majority. He’s still technically prime minister until parliament says otherwise—but parliament would have to meet to do that, and it’s unclear when that might happen. Given that Bainimarama first seized power in a 2006 military coup these developments have to be viewed with some degree of trepidation.
Meanwhile, board members of the Social Democratic Liberal Party, who handed Rabuka that majority when they narrowly voted (16-14) to join his coalition earlier this week, are reportedly meeting again on Friday to consider the validity of that vote. Fijian election officials and the party’s own general secretary have questioned whether the vote was conducted legitimately. If the party reverses its decision and throws its support behind Bainimarama that might temporarily resolve the military issue but it likely will not end this emerging political crisis.
The Permanent Strategic Framework for Peace, Security and Development, a coalition of northern Malian militant groups, announced on Thursday that it is withdrawing from its 2015 peace agreement with the Malian government, citing “the persistent absence of political will” in implementing the accord shown by Mali’s ruling junta. The 2015 Algiers Accord brought an end to a northern Tuareg rebellion against the Malian government, save for the continued activity of extremist/jihadist groups. Its terms remain largely unimplemented, which is partly a failure of the Malian government and partly because the escalation of extremist violence (itself another government failure) has made implementation impossible in many areas. The coalition says it would be willing to resume negotiations with the junta but only in internationally mediated talks held in a neutral country.
Burkina Faso’s ruling junta has reportedly expelled two French nationals from the country over allegations of spying. They were working for a telecommunications company but, according to Burkinabé media, were attempting to acquire information about the country’s military. Relations between the Burkinabé junta and France are going in a direction similar to that followed by Mali’s ruling junta, which contracted Russia’s Wagner Group to provide counter-insurgency assistance and has essentially cut ties with Paris. Burkinabé leaders may already have cut a deal with Wagner though they have yet to confirm rumors to that effect.
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir was filmed urinating on himself during a public appearance last week. The video has intensified discussions regarding the 71 year old Kiir’s fitness for office—he has for the past couple of years been dogged by rumors of ill health—particularly as he’s leading a country facing a wide array of serious political and economic challenges. It’s also raised concerns about journalistic ethics and protections, as there have been threats against the camera operator’s life.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
There were reports of clashes between M23 rebels and members of the pro-DRC government Patriotic Alliance for a Free and Independent Congo (APCLS) militia in North Kivu province on Thursday. APCLS, an ethnic Hunde militia, is one of several government-aligned militant groups that have been battling M23 in recent weeks during its advance on North Kivu’ capital, Goma. A new United Nations experts’ report, meanwhile, concludes that the Rwandan military has been engaging in “military operations” in the eastern DRC in support of M23. Congolese officials have for months been accusing Rwanda of providing direct assistance to M23, while the Rwandan government has denied those claims.
In Russia-related news:
The Biden administration on Thursday imposed new sanctions against ten “Russian naval entities” over the Russian military’s attacks on Ukraine’s few remaining Black Sea ports. The sanctions announcement emphasized Russian operations targeting the three ports that are exporting Ukrainian food products under the Black Sea Grain Initiative. The targeted entities are involved in activities like naval research, shipbuilding, and technology development.
The White House alleged on Thursday that Russia’s Wagner Group private military firm has been buying weapons from North Korea for use in Ukraine. Wagner’s owner, oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, denied the charge, as did the North Korean government. The US government could take its complaint here to the UN Security Council, since any Russian arms purchase would violate UNSC sanctions covering North Korea’s arms industry.
Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to the war in Ukraine as a “war” in a news conference on Thursday, specifically talking about his (entirely rhetorical) desire to “end this war.” This seemingly mundane event is probably not mundane to Russians who have run afoul of the law in part for using the w-word over the past several months, during which time Putin has insisted on calling the conflict a “special military operation.”
A local official in Russian-held Kherson oblast was killed in an apparent car bombing on Thursday. The pro-Russian administration of that province accused the Ukrainians of carrying out the attack, which seems like a reasonable conclusion though Ukrainian officials have not, to my knowledge, commented. Elsewhere, former Russian deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was reportedly wounded on Wednesday when the Ukrainian military shelled a hotel in the city of Donetsk where he was staying while acting as a security adviser, presumably to the local government. Two people were killed in that attack.
Despite the pageantry of his visit to Washington on Wednesday, according to The New York Times Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been unable to convince the Biden administration to ratchet up the sophistication of the armaments it’s sending to Ukraine. The administration rewarded Zelensky with over $1.8 billion in new aid and Congress’s ~$1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill contains nearly $50 billion in new Ukraine funding. But the administration continues to rebuff Zelensky’s appeals for long range Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) missiles, Abrams tanks, F-16 fighters, and advanced US drones. In part this refusal is due to fears about escalation and in part it’s out of concern that if any of these weapons, or parts of them, were seized by the Russians it could compromise those systems. My view on this continues to be that the pressure on the Biden administration to provide more advanced weapons systems is only going to grow the longer this war goes, and I suspect it may at some point begin to wobble on things like drones and long range missiles.
Aside from those “wish list” items, some of which may simply be aspirational—Zelensky may be shooting for the moon as a negotiating gambit—Ukraine is also starting to run into problems obtaining ammunition, mostly because its suppliers are themselves starting to run out. European countries in particular don’t have the capacity to churn out ammo at the rate the Ukrainian military is going through it. There’s been some investment in expanding that capacity over the past several months but that’s not the sort of thing that comes online overnight.
Thousands of residents of predominantly Serb northern Kosovo protested on Thursday amid calls for all Kosovan police officers—or at least the ethnically Albanian ones—to be withdrawn from that region. Kosovan Serbs have been blockading roads and periodically clashing with police for nearly two weeks now, after the arrest of an ethnic Serb former police officer who allegedly attacked Kosovan police officers during an earlier protest. The Kosovan government has made plans to rotate new police officers into the northern part of the country, but the bottom line here is that most Kosovan Serbs recognize neither Kosovan independence nor the legitimacy of the Kosovan government and still hold that they are citizens of Serbia. There’s no simple fix the Kosovan government can adopt to resolve that.
The German government on Thursday arrested an employee of its Federal Intelligence Service (BND) on suspicion of spying for Russia. There appears to be one other person implicated in this investigation but the identity of that person is unclear and I do not know if they’ve been arrested as well. Russian spying is a fairly common occurrence in European states but it seems like it’s ratcheted up since the start of the Ukraine war, and for a BND employee to be compromised in this way is an exceedingly rare occurrence. The Austrian government also said earlier this week that it was investigating a Greek national for allegedly spying on Russia’s behalf.
Venezuelan opposition figure Juan Guaidó’s pretend presidency is facing a pretend impeachment, as three of the four parties that comprise the united Venezuelan opposition voted to dissolve his pretend—sorry, “interim”—government on Thursday. Guaidó’s own Popular Will party was the only holdout, unsurprisingly. The parties are planning to hold another meeting next week to finalize Guaidó’s ouster and his replacement with a five person “board of directors,” charged mainly with managing overseas Venezuelan assets that various governments have stripped from the actual Venezuelan government under Nicolás Maduro. Guaidó famously declared himself president of Venezuela in 2019 but has failed to actualize that declaration in any way. Perhaps he’ll go searching for other countries that need new management and declare himself president of one of them.
Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s Connor Echols reports on new consolidation in the defense industry and its effect on the US military’s budget and its capabilities:
Defense contractor L3Harris announced Sunday that it plans to acquire Aerojet Rocketdyne for $4.7 billion in a move that would cement the firm as one of America’s leading arms makers.
It’s unclear if the deal will go through, especially given that the Federal Trade Commission recently torpedoed Lockheed Martin’s attempt to purchase Aerojet Rocketdyne on antitrust grounds. Due to potential national security concerns, the Pentagon will also have a chance to block the move.
But, assuming it does clear these bureaucratic obstacles, the deal will represent a significant step in the decades-long consolidation of the defense industry — a trend that risks driving up the military budget while slowing innovation, experts say.
Thanks again for reading and best wishes to you and yours for a great holiday season!
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