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World roundup: December 3-4 2022
Stories from Iran, Tunisia, Russia, and elsewhere
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THESE DAYS IN HISTORY
December 2, 1805: At the Battle of Austerlitz, Napoleon wins what was arguably his greatest victory against a larger joint Russian-Austrian army. The Allies suffered 36,000 dead/wounded/captured compared with only 9000 for the French. The French victory was so complete that not only did it end the War of the Third Coalition, it allowed Napoleon to create the Confederation of the Rhine among the German states that had become French clients. Emperor Francis II was then forced to dissolve the Holy Roman Empire, which had been in existence continuously since 962 and traced its origins back to Charlemagne’s coronation as “emperor of the Romans” in 800.
December 2, 1942: Enrico Fermi and his team create the first self-sustaining nuclear reaction at “Chicago Pile-1,” a rudimentary reactor built under the campus of the University of Chicago. This was the first milestone achievement for the Manhattan Project in its race to build a nuclear bomb before Nazi Germany.
December 3, 1971: The Pakistani military undertakes preemptive airstrikes against several Indian military installations, beginning the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, itself the final phase of the Bangladesh Liberation War. India was preparing to enter the war on Bangladesh’s side anyway, so these strikes can indeed be considered preemptive. The war, to put it mildly, was a complete disaster for the Pakistanis, who were forced to surrender a scant 13 days later and had to give up their claims on “East Pakistan” (Bangladesh) while suffering around a third of their military killed, wounded, or captured.
December 3, 1984: A Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, spews toxic methyl isocyanate gas overnight, resulting in the deaths of between 3800 and 16,000 people and causing injury to at least 558,000 more. Union Carbide maintains that the leak was caused by deliberate sabotage, though Indian courts subsequently found several officials at the plant guilty of negligence. The “Bhopal Disaster” remains one of the worst industrial catastrophes in history and its adverse effects are still being felt by people in that region to the present day.
December 4, 1676: A Swedish army under King Charles XI defeats an invading Danish army at the Battle of Lund. Though a relatively small battle in terms of the number of soldiers involved, in percentage terms this is one of the bloodiest battles in European history. Of the 21,000 or so soldiers involved on both sides, roughly two-thirds were killed or wounded. The Swedish victory thwarted the Danish invasion and is therefore considered a turning point in the 1675-1679 Scanian War.
In today’s global news:
Worldometer is tracking COVID-19 cases and fatalities.
The New York Times is tracking global vaccine distribution.
As expected, OPEC+ member states decided to stay the course on Sunday, sticking to the same reduced production level they implemented at last month’s club meeting. This is unsurprising, but it does raise the potential for an increase in oil prices when the European Union’s embargo on most Russian oil takes effect on Monday and when (or if) the EU/G7 Russian oil price cap (see below) takes effect.
At least two people (one civilian and one police officer) were killed and seven others injured in an anti-government protest in southern Syria’s predominantly Druze Suwayda province on Sunday. Demonstrators reportedly stormed government buildings in Suwayda city, including a police station and the provincial government office. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is alleging that security forces opened fire on the protesters with live ammunition.
Suwayda is not the hotbed of anti-government sentiment that some other parts of Syria are—Syrian Druze largely stayed out of the civil war, for example. But the province does see periodic demonstrations over Syria’s weak economy and high level of corruption, and residents are more heavily armed than they were prior to the war and, specifically, to the emergence of Islamic State as a threat to the populace.
Someone fired a rocket out of Gaza late Saturday, prompting the usual Israeli military response early Sunday. Israeli officials say their airstrikes targeted a tunnel network and a weapons plant. There’s no word of any casualties in the exchange and there’s been no claim of responsibility with respect to the rocket.
Several media outlets were aflutter with news on Sunday that the Iranian government had shuttered its “morality” police unit, whose treatment of Mahsa Amini back in September (she died in morality police custody with indications that she’d been beaten) sparked protests that have been raging across Iran ever since. These reports stem from a comment by Iranian Prosecutor-General Mohammad Jafar Montazeri in which he 1) disavowed any connection between the morality police and Iran’s judicial establishment, and 2) said that the morality police had been “shut down by the same place that it had been launched from in the past.” Much as I’d like to say this is a true story, I think those aforementioned media outlets have jumped to a conclusion that is not supported by the evidence.
Montazeri’s comments were vague and open to multiple interpretations. His main point seems to have been to wash his own hands of any link to the morality police, which it’s safe to say is one of the more loathed public institutions in Iran. Which is true, insofar as the morality police falls under the Iranian government’s law enforcement command, which is housed in the interior ministry, not the judiciary. But that’s also one of several reasons why Montazeri, a relatively junior official in the judiciary (notwithstanding how impressive his title sounds), would not be the person who would announce such a huge policy change. There’s been no announcement of the morality police’s dissolution by any major Iranian political figure and in fact Iranian media is reporting that the unit has not been disbanded.
What Montazeri may have meant by “shut down” is that the morality police’s operations have effectively been suspended. This apparently aligns with claims that the unit hasn’t really been seen out in public for some time now. It’s certainly possible that there’s something more than that happening, but again we’d need someone a little higher in the Iranian hierarchy than Montazeri to confirm that. The leaders of the Islamic Republic are mostly still people who were alive and active during the 1979 revolution and one lesson they took from that event was the the former shah’s concessions to his opponents were taken as signs of weakness and invigorated the opposition rather than mollifying it. It would be surprising to see them make what would be perceived1 as a significant concession while the protests are ongoing.
Azerbaijani authorities temporarily occupied the “Lachin Corridor,” one of two roadways linking Nagorno-Karabakh to Armenia, on Saturday, raising immediate fears that they were launching a new attack against the predominantly Armenian enclave. Instead the Azerbaijanis established roadblocks along the corridor for several hours before packing up. It’s broadly accepted in Azerbaijani media that the Armenians, with the support of the Russian peacekeepers who are overseeing Lachin under the terms of the 2020 deal that ended that fall’s war in Karabakh, are using the corridor to smuggle arms into Karabakh while smuggling gold and other minerals out. The 2020 war left Lachin precariously in Azerbaijani control, but the peace deal did oblige the Azerbaijanis to open a second Armenia-Karabakh corridor.
Apart from the smuggling claims, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev is frustrated that the Armenians will not open a “Zangezur Corridor,” which would link Azerbaijan proper to its Nakhchivan exclave across southern Armenia. He insists that this corridor was also part of the 2020 peace deal and this move against Lachin may be part of an effort to intimidate Armenian officials into giving him what he wants. The Armenians maintain that the 2020 deal only obligates them to allow Azerbaijani vehicles to transit through southern Armenia. They fear, not without reason, that creating a dedicated Azerbaijani corridor to Nakhchivan would effectively cut the Armenian-Iranian border.
Islamic State has claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack on the Pakistani embassy in Kabul, which left one guard wounded. Afghan police have arrested one person in connection with that incident, which apparently involved snipers stationed in a nearby building.
Pakistani Taliban (TTP) fighters ambushed a police unit in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Saturday, killing three police officers. The attack capped a busy week in which the TTP declared an official end to its faltering ceasefire with the Pakistani government and then carried out an attack on a polio vaccination team in Baluchistan province that killed four people.
UGTT, the powerful Tunisian public sector union, broke with President Kais Saied on Saturday, with union boss Noureddine Taboubi decrying the president’s “current path because of its ambiguity and individual rule, and the unpleasant surprises it hides for the fate of the country and democracy.” To this point UGTT has been fairly receptive to Saied’s constitutional agenda since he established one-man rule back in July 2021, supporting parts of it and at most registering mild rhetorical opposition to parts it found objectionable. It’s not clear to me why the union has suddenly intensified its opposition like this but it comes at a bad time for Saied, who’s planning an election to fill his new and considerably neutered parliament on December 17. UGTT has a demonstrated ability to put a very large number of protesters in the streets and/or to disrupt the Tunisian economy via strikes.
Members of the Economic Community of West African States bloc are planning to create a “peacekeeping” force whose primary mission sounds like it would be preventing or reversing coups in a region that’s seen a number of those over the past couple of years. I have no idea how this force would be formed or how it would work, given that most coups are over well before ECOWAS could conceivably take action to stop them. But it sounds ambitious, at least.
Unknown gunmen attacked a mosque in Nigeria’s Katsina state late Saturday, killing at least 12 people including an imam while abducting several others. Some number of the abductees were apparently rescued following the attack. Bandit groups in many parts of northern Nigeria attack communities in order to extort protection money and kidnap civilians with an eye toward ransoming them.
The Tigray People’s Liberation Front’s field commander, Tadesse Worede, claimed on Saturday that some “65 percent” of the TPLF’s fighters have “disengag[ed] from battlelines and moved to designated places” in accordance with the peace deal the TPLF and Ethiopian government signed last month. The thing is, that deal stipulated that the TPLF was to disarm and fully stand down as of…this past Friday. So clearly they’re behind schedule, but Tadesse reiterated the TPLF’s position that it cannot fully demobilize until third party forces—meaning the Eritrean military and Amhara regional security forces—leave Tigray.
It’s still early, but so far it sounds like the new European Union/G7 Russian oil price cap is going over like a lead balloon.
The Russian government came out of the gate quickly, declaring on Saturday that it “will not accept” the cap and is working on a way to dodge it. That could be easier said than done, however. The cap works because international shipping and insurance firms are likely not going to risk Western sanctions in order to facilitate Russian oil exports at prices higher than the $60 cap established on Friday. Russia could and apparently has tried to self-insure, but even China seems reluctant to buy under that system. Moscow could just stop exporting oil under the terms imposed by the cap, but it could be leaving a considerable amount of revenue on the table were it to do so. The hope would be that cutting production would cause an oil price spike so serious that the West would cave and reverse the policy. That seems unlikely, but what do I know?
On the flip side, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky slammed the cap as too high, criticizing the EU and G7 for “trying to avoid hard decisions” by refusing to set it at a lower level that would cut more deeply into Russian revenues. When you put it that way it seems like they might as well eliminate the cap altogether, seeing as how it’s not going to do much good anyway. Though, again, what do I know?
Russian forces occupying parts of Ukraine seem to be going to some lengths to remove aspects of the culture and history of those regions that might distinguish them as Ukrainian rather than Russian:
More than 200 Ukrainian cultural sites have been partially or completely destroyed, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. In occupied parts of the country, residents say, Ukrainian flags are banned. Wearing a vyshyvanka—a traditional Ukrainian woven shirt—can lead to detention. Books in Ukrainian are being pulled from school shelves and tossed out.
“Our culture and our language are on the front lines,” Oleksandr Tkachenko, the Ukrainian culture minister, said on Nov. 9, which the country celebrates as the day of Ukrainian language.
Russian officials didn’t respond to requests for comment, but have said publicly that they were taking both civilians and cultural artifacts from [Kherson] city to protect them from Ukrainian attacks.
The protection claim has some plausibility, I guess, though this is happening amid a much broader effort to strip Ukraine of anything that can be carried away. So looting is also fairly plausible as an explanation.
President Gustavo Petro announced on Saturday that his negotiators had reached an agreement with the rebel National Liberation Army (ELN) that will see the Indigenous Embera people return to their lands in western Colombia’s Chocó and Risaralda provinces. That community has been displaced by violence involving the ELN and several of Colombia’s other armed groups. The ELN has yet to comment on Petro’s statement but this would be the first of what will ideally be several agreements between Petro’s government and Colombia’s largest rebel group, culminating at some point in a peace deal.
Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele announced on Saturday that he’d deployed 10,000 police and soldiers to surround San Salvador’s Soyapango suburb, much of which is apparently under the control of the MS-13 and Barrio 18 gangs. He’s apparently planning to use “extraction teams” to remove “all the gang members still there one by one.” El Salvador is still under a state of emergency that Bukele imposed in March, ostensibly over gang violence though police have arrested some 50,000 people and his critics accuse him of rounding up a number of political prisoners.
Finally, Responsible Statecraft’s Daniel Larison reports on a new poll that suggests a significant portion of the American public would prefer more restraint in US foreign policy:
The results of a Morning Consult survey show that there continues to be substantial public support for scaling back U.S. military entanglements. Large blocs of Republicans and Democrats are in favor of less involvement in the affairs of other countries in general, and a plurality of Americans supports decreasing overseas deployments and reducing involvement in foreign conflicts.
While there were slight fluctuations over the course of the three-month survey, there were more voters that said they wanted a decreased military presence and a reduced role in foreign wars than chose the status quo or a larger role. The disconnect between what this plurality of voters wants and what the government is doing in different parts of the world is as big as it has ever been.
Unfortunately, the survey report frames these results in the crudest terms of “isolationism” vs. engagement. Morning Consult’s pejorative framing of this sentiment as support for “greater isolationism” seems likely to reinforce policymakers’ habits of dismissing public skepticism of U.S. entanglements out of hand. Calling something “isolationism” is never merely descriptive, and it is almost always inaccurate, so whenever it is deployed it is a sign of sloppiness or hostility, or both.
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I say “perceived” because disbanding the morality police might not actually be much of a concession. Prior to the unit’s establishment in 2005, enforcement of Iran’s strict dress code was handled informally, often by Basij paramilitary personnel who were just as brutal (if not more so) than the morality police. If the unit really were disbanded but the code remained in place, this informal system of enforcement could return. Or the Iranians could just replace the morality police with a different organization with the same remit.