World roundup: December 9-10 2023
Stories from Sudan, Ukraine, Guyana, and elsewhere
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THIS WEEKEND IN HISTORY
December 9, 1824: The armies of Peru and Gran Colombia defeat a Spanish royalist army in the Battle of Ayacucho. Considered one of the last major engagements of the Latin American wars of independence, the Peruvian-Colombian victory ensured Peru’s independence and cleared the way for the Peruvian commander, General Antonio José de Sucre, to enter Upper Peru (modern Bolivia) and campaign there.
December 9, 1987: The First Intifada begins
December 10, 1877: A Russian army defeats an Ottoman garrison and captures the town of Plevna, in modern Bulgaria.
December 10, 1898: The Treaty of Paris ends the Spanish-American War. Under its terms, Spain agreed to give up its claims on Cuba (which became a US protectorate) and turned Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico over to the United States. It is often considered the end of the Spanish empire, though Spain still held some colonies so that’s not really accurate, and the first emergence of the United States as a major world power.
This will no doubt come as a shock, but the International Energy Agency reported over the weekend that even if the participants in the United Nations COP 28 climate summit fulfilled all of the pledges they’ve made at this year’s shindig it would only get humanity about a third of the way toward the carbon emissions reductions needed to salvage the Paris Climate Agreement’s 1.5 degree Celsius warming threshold. And since there’s no realistic chance that they’ll fulfill all of those pledges, or even most of them, I guess that doesn’t leave us in a very good place. Summit attendees are still locked in a heated dispute over whether to insert unenforceable language about a fossil fuel “phase down” into their final statement, or to have the statement just be a drawing of a giant raised middle finger instead.
Heavy fighting continued throughout Gaza over the weekend, with the most intense activity still focused on Khan Younis as the Israeli military (IDF) reportedly pressed its offensive there as far as the city’s primary north-south thoroughfare. Authorities in Gaza said that some 300 people had been killed between Saturday and Sunday, taking the official death toll to more than 18,000 since the October 7 attacks—though the true count is likely higher. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated a demand for Hamas’s surrender on Sunday, while the militant group warned that the remaining Israeli hostages in its custody will die absent a negotiated settlement to this conflict. So in other words there doesn’t appear to be much diplomacy happening at the moment, at least not in public.
The United Nations estimated over the weekend that half of Gaza’s population is now facing “severe levels of hunger.” Virtually the entire population is struggling to find enough to eat amid shortages and high prices, and as we’ve mentioned here again and again the level of humanitarian relief is nowhere near adequate to the need. At the risk of repeating myself, this conflict is approaching a point where indirect casualties (from hunger, illness, etc.) are going to match or even surpass casualties directly caused by the fighting. Under these conditions, and given the level of material destruction the IDF has wrought in Gaza, it perhaps comes as no surprise that many of the territory’s residents seem ready to leave permanently. Which may be the point—the Jordanian government and the director of the UN Relief and Works Agency both accused the Israeli government of trying to push Gazan civilians out of the territory over the weekend. Whether or not that’s fair I don’t think there’s any question that Israeli officials wouldn’t be sad to see Gazans leave, especially if it happened in a way that—no matter how absurdly—could be spun as “voluntary.”
The Biden administration on Friday exercised its option to expedite the sale of some 14,000 tank shells to Israel without congressional oversight. This was purely an expedience issue—the US Congress is not going to block any arms sale to Israel, but the Biden administration doesn’t want to isolate Israeli military aid from the Ukrainian military aid it’s also trying to get through the legislature. It’s probably worth noting that the administration is refusing to assess whether the IDF is using US weapons in compliance with international law—while claiming that it is “unable” to do so, which is absurd. The administration has decided to rely on the assurance of Israeli officials that everything they’re doing is on the up and up. Sounds very simple and believable.
Israeli forces killed at least two Palestinians, both teenagers, in several raids across the West Bank over the weekend. The Israelis also detained a number of people, some of whom (according to Al Jazeera) reported being physically mistreated while in custody.
The UN General Assembly will probably vote to call for a ceasefire in Gaza on Tuesday. I hesitate to make too much of this because everything the UNGA does is by definition symbolic. But the vote will likely reinforce the impression that its ironclad support for Israel has isolated the US internationally.
Islamic State fighters reportedly were behind an attack on a military outpost in eastern Syria on Friday that killed “at least seven pro-regime fighters” according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. On Saturday, the SOHR reported that the Syrian military killed at least six people and wounded 25 more in a missile strike on rebel-controlled parts of Idlib province. That strike came two days after a rebel attack in neighboring Aleppo province killed at least 11 pro-government fighters (along with at least five attackers).
A French frigate reportedly came under attack in the Red Sea late Saturday by drones that appear to have been launched from northern Yemen. It shot down both projectiles. There’s been no claim of responsibility but it’s probably safe to assume that the Houthis were behind it. On Saturday, the rebels issued a statement warning that “if Gaza does not receive the food and medicines it needs, all ships in the Red Sea bound for Israeli ports, regardless of their nationality, will become a target for our armed forces,” threatening to escalate an already tense situation. The Israeli government is threatening to take unilateral action against the Houthis unless the US and company do something to curtail the group’s attacks on Red Sea shipping.
Sunday apparently saw a higher than usual volume of attacks along the Israeli-Lebanese border, but no fatalities as far as I can tell. Amid the activity, an apparent Hezbollah drone strike wounded several Israeli soldiers, prompting the IDF to retaliate with airstrikes—including one that wounded at least five people in the village of Aitaroun.
Voting in Egypt’s presidential election opened on Sunday. It will end either on Tuesday or whenever President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi decides to end it, and Sisi will win with probably over 95 percent of the vote unless he feels the need to pretend like this was a real contest. Turnout might be interesting to watch inasmuch as it could demonstrate the level of public support for Sisi’s reign. His 2014 victory featured turnout in the high 40s but his 2018 win saw that decline to the low 40s. There is, of course, no reason to believe any turnout figure the Egyptian government provides.
The UN’s refugee agency sounded the proverbial alarm bell on Friday with respect to the hundreds of thousands of Afghans who have been deported from Pakistani over the past couple of months. Most of them have returned to Afghanistan with little or nothing and are living in what are effectively ramshackle refugee camps in their home country. The agency says that many of them “could lose their lives” over the winter unless the Afghan government—or somebody—builds appropriate accommodations for them or provides them with some sort of basic monetary assistance. Some of the returnees have never even lived in Afghanistan, having been born to Afghan migrants in Pakistan, so they’re now struggling to find jobs, places to live, etc.
Philippine and Chinese vessels spent the weekend in another tense standoff in the disputed South China Sea. The most significant incident took place on Sunday, when a Chinese and Philippine vessel collided with one another near the Second Thomas Shoal, with each side unsurprisingly accusing the other of having caused it. There were no casualties in the incident as far as I know. Prior to the collision Philippine officials had been accusing the Chinese Coast Guard of firing water cannons at Philippine ships attempting to resupply the country’s makeshift naval base in the shoal. On Saturday Philippine officials say that a Chinese vessel fired water cannons at Philippine fisheries vessels near the similarly disputed Scarborough Shoal.
On a similar note, Chinese and Japanese vessels had themselves a standoff near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea on Sunday. Each government accused the other of violating their territorial waters, which since they both claim the area means they were probably both right.
The Sudanese military apparently attacked an International Committee of the Red Cross convoy in Khartoum on Sunday, killing at least two people and wounding another seven. According to the ICRC the convoy was attempting to evacuate “vulnerable civilians” from the capital. The military later acknowledged attacking the convoy but appeared to suggest that the ICRC had triggered the attack by straying too close to a military position.
Also on Sunday, the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development regional bloc announced that it’s gotten Sudanese military commander Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Rapid Support Forces leader Mohammed Hamdan Dagalo to agree to “a one-to-one meeting” and “an unconditional cease-fire and resolution of the conflict through political dialogue.” This could be huge news, but I think its advisable to pump the brakes a bit, at least until IGAD announces an actual date and place for this meeting.
Also also on Sunday, the Sudanese military expelled 15 UAE diplomats from the country. Burhan and his supporters have regularly accused the Emirati government of backing the RSF and recently alleged that it’s been supplying Dagalo’s forces with advanced drones and other military hardware.
The Economic Community of West African States announced on Sunday that it will establish a three-person committee to lead negotiations with Niger’s military government on a return to nominally civilian rule in that country. Presumably this means the remaining ECOWAS member states have realized that sanctioning Niger accomplished nothing other than immiserating the Nigerien people, since the bloc said that it’s prepared to ease the sanctions pending the progress of these talks. It’s unclear whether The Gang is similarly prepared to reengage with the military governments in Burkina Faso and Mali.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said in a recent interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel that Ukraine is turning toward authoritarianism, adding, “At some point we will no longer be any different from Russia, where everything depends on the whim of one man.”
Then Petro Poroshenko, who served as president of Ukraine before Zelensky and is now leader of the opposition in parliament, was prevented by authorities from leaving the country a week ago in what analysts view as a political slap from Zelensky’s administration.
Poroshenko claimed that his trip abroad, which included a trip to the United States to meet with lawmakers and other officials, was intended to lobby support for Ukraine. The internal intelligence agency, the SBU, which answers to the presidential office, said Saturday that it had blocked Poroshenko’s departure to prevent his trip from being used for propaganda purposes by Russia.
Ukrainian and U.S. officials have also noted friction between Zelensky and his commander in chief, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny. The 50-year-old Zaluzhny rarely makes public statements, and though he’s never revealed any political ambitions, his popularity in Ukraine rivals Zelensky’s.
New Argentine President Javier Milei officially took office on Sunday with a pledge to impose “a shock adjustment” on the country’s ailing economy. Milei campaigned on a program of short term pain for long term gain, involving measures like major across the board spending cuts and eliminating the peso in favor of the US dollar. Those things would definitely cause a lot of short term pain. Whether they’d actually generate any long term gain is far from certain.
Guyanese President Irfaan Ali announced on Sunday that he’s agreed to bilateral negotiations with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro over the two countries’ claims over the Essequibo region. Internationally Essequibo is regarded as part of Guyana, but Venezuela has a claim on the region that goes back to colonial times and Maduro held a referendum on the region’s status last weekend that has set much of Latin America and the Caribbean on edge. Agreeing to the negotiations is a concession by Ali, who had previously maintained that the issue should be settled through international bodies (i.e., the UN), and one that he apparently made under some gentle pressure from the governments of Brazil and a number of Caribbean states, all of whom affirmed support for Guyana’s territorial claim but pushed for the talks. The negotiations will open on the island of St. Vincent on Thursday.
The UN Security Council blacklisted four Haitian gang leaders on Friday. The only name on the UN’s Haiti sanctions list had previously been G9 alliance boss Jimmy Cherizier, and there have been calls for the council to broaden that list amid Haiti’s worsening gang crisis.
Finally, HuffPost’s Akbar Shahid Ahmed reports on growing consternation within the US State Department regarding the war in Gaza:
Another State Department official told HuffPost: “This is a pivotal moment in history, and we should feel angry about how [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has literally put our reputation on fire to advance his personal political agenda. The collateral effects to American security are extremely consequential.”
Netanyahu’s security failures are widely blamed for the assault on Israel, and he is expected to resign at the end of the war. He is also facing criminal charges that could land him in jail.
A third State Department official voiced frustration with recent news articles suggesting the U.S. is encouraging Israeli caution and similar public statements, arguing: “It just feels like patting ourselves on the back while it increasingly seems like the IDF are waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing.”
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