World roundup: February 1 2024
Stories from Iran, Mali, Ukraine, and elsewhere
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TODAY IN HISTORY
February 1, 1713: The Skirmish at Bendery
February 1, 1979: Ruhollah Khomeini returns to Iran after several years in exile, just in time to seize power.
With the Middle East collectively on pins and needles while everyone waits to see how the US military retaliates for this past weekend’s deadly drone strike in Jordan (more on that below), hopes are tentatively rising about a potential ceasefire in Gaza. Qatari sources are claiming that Hamas leaders reacted to the latest proposal, which calls for a roughly 40 day cessation in the initial stage with the possibility of extension, “positively.” They haven’t made a formal response however, so I wouldn’t read too much into this. The details that still haven’t been settled, like the number and identities of Palestinian prisoners whom the Israelis would be releasing and whether or not the agreement offers a clear path toward ending the conflict, are significant enough that they could sink the whole endeavor.
The Biden administration on Thursday issued a new executive order authorizing sanctions against Israeli settlers over violence against Palestinians, and the State Department followed by designating four individuals under the new authority. This is symbolically significant but I wouldn’t make too much of it unless it becomes clear that this is something more than just window dressing. The order expressly exempts the 60,000 US citizens who are currently living in West Bank settlements, which is one big indication that the administration isn’t serious. There’s also no indication that Washington has any stomach for sanctioning prominent leaders of the settlement movement, up to and including the movement’s representatives in the Israeli cabinet. That leads into the biggest problem, which is that targeting individual settlers in punishment for what is at its core a collective, state-supported project is missing (intentionally) the forest for the trees. Unless the administration tries to reckon with the settlement project for what it really is we can assume these sanctions are merely an attempt to show frustrated constituencies in the US that Joe Biden Cares and is Doing Something to help Palestinians. It’s functionally meaningless.
Also from the “let’s not get carried away” file, there have been reports in recent days that both the UK and US governments are studying the possibility of recognizing a Palestinian state if doing so would advance peace talks. Sure they are. Most likely this is a pure attempt at distraction, but even if one or both were to recognize “a” Palestinian state what sort of state would it be? Not a full-fledged state with complete sovereignty, I suspect.
Sky News has apparently seen a copy of the Israeli government’s intelligence report on United Nations Relief and Works Agency personnel participating in the October 7 militant attacks in southern Israel. Where media reporting to date has said that 12 of the agency’s 13,000 Gazan employees participated in the attacks, this report mentions only six, four of whom appear to have participated directly in abducting hostages. It asserts that 10 percent of UNRWA’s Gazan employees “are Hamas/PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad] operatives” and half of them “are first-degree relatives with a Hamas operative.” As far as I can tell these figures are pulled out of ether—even Sky News notes that there’s no proof for many of the Israeli claims and not much in the report that “directly implicate[s] UNRWA.” To reiterate, it is on the basis of these allegations that the US and other Western governments have decided to defund UNRWA in the middle of Gaza’s humanitarian catastrophe, a decision that will almost certainly kill people if it is not reversed.
Palestinian authorities are claiming to have uncovered a mass grave containing around 30 bodies of people who were killed while handcuffed and blindfolded. The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Wednesday called for an “international investigation” into what they’re saying is evidence of a mass execution by Israeli forces.
Haaretz reported on Thursday that Israeli soldiers have been setting fire to empty homes in Gaza—which it euphemistically describes as “abandoned”—on orders from senior Israeli military (IDF) officers who are issuing those orders without legal permission. Destroying private property in occupied territory is prohibited by the Fourth Geneva Convention unless militarily necessary. The concept of necessity is left vague on purpose but it would be difficult to make an affirmative case that these empty homes in a devastated territory pose military threats.
The US military’s Central Command said on Thursday that its forces had carried out new attacks against ten Houthi drones and a “ground control center.” A US destroyer in the region reportedly shot down one Houthi missile and three drones earlier in the day. CNN is reporting that the destroyer USS Gravely intercepted a Houthi missile earlier this week using its short-range “Close-In Weapon System.” US naval vessels have generally been intercepting Houthi projectiles at some distance but the use of this system suggests the Gravely came very close to being hit. Needless to say if one of these projectiles does strike a US military vessel that’s going to ramp tensions up significantly.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is reportedly pulling its senior and many of its mid-level personnel out of Syria. To a large extent these seems to be driven by a series of recent IDF attacks in Syria that have targeted, and in some cases successfully killed, high-level IRGC officers.
The Iranians may now also be concerned about leaving IRGC officers vulnerable to whatever the Biden administration does to retaliate for that drone strike in Jordan over the weekend, which killed three US soldiers. The attack was likely carried out by Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, using a device that the Biden administration says it believes was “manufactured in Iran.” CBS News is now reporting that the administration is planning to strike several Iran-affiliated targets in Syria and Iraq, including sites where Iranian personnel are known to be stationed. This is not the direct attack on Iran that hawks in DC have been demanding but for an Iranian government that seems to be looking for ways to keep this situation from escalating into a full-blown war it’s probably a good idea to get its personnel out of the potential field of fire.
The Armenian government officially joined the International Criminal Court on Thursday. Its parliament ratified the ICC’s Rome Statute back in October in a move that signaled a strengthening of Yerevan’s relationship with Western states and also appears to have been intended as a bit of a snub to Russia. The ICC famously issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin back in March, so in theory Armenia would now be obliged to arrest Putin if he were to enter the country. One assumes he won’t be doing that anytime soon.
The UK government on Thursday blacklisted two Myanmar state-owned businesses and a number of its military units. It joined the US government in commemorating the third anniversary of the coup that brought Myanmar’s military back to power with these new penalties. Citizens in Myanmar marked the occasion with a silent strike that reportedly shut down cities and towns across the country.
Human Rights Watch issued a new report on Thursday alleging that major carmakers including General Motors, Tesla, Toyota, and Volkswagen may be using aluminum produced via forced labor in China’s Xinjiang region. The US government has responded to similar claims regarding exports from Xinjiang by requiring companies—in the textile industry, for example—to verify that their supply chains are free of forced labor. It could do something like that here, though HRW warned that sourcing aluminum may be challenging as the raw material produced in Xinjiang is often sent to other facilities across China for processing into alloys. Xinjiang produces around 9 percent of the world’s aluminum supply.
UN Human Rights High Commissioner Volker Türk issued a statement on Thursday saying that he was “appalled” at “credible allegations” that Malian soldiers (along with “foreign military personnel,” presumably Russians) massacred at least 25 people in southern Mali’s Koulikoro region on January 26. I haven’t seen any independent reporting on this claim but this is certainly not the first time Malian forces and their Russian/Wagner Group partners have been accused of atrocities against civilians. In the same statement, Türk also expressed “alarm” at reports of at least 30 killings in two villages in central Mali’s Mopti region over the weekend, which in context seems to suggest the Malian military may have been involved in those incidents as well.
Inter-communal violence in South Sudan’s Lakes state is being blamed for the deaths of at least 38 people in clashes that reportedly started on Wednesday and continued into Thursday. It sounds like the fighting started between residents of a swampy area and cattle herders from neighboring Warrap state who moved into the area looking for water, but details beyond that are sketchy at best. The situation appears to have calmed down a bit but authorities are still wary of the potential for further violence.
DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC OF THE CONGO
Inter-communal fighting between the Teke and Yaka communities left at least 11 people dead on Tuesday in the western DRC’s Mai-Ndombe province. Those communities have been at odds over competing land claims since 2022, in a low-level conflict that’s seen at least 3000 killed.
I’m not entirely sure why, but after days of speculation about how European Union member states might punish (or at least threaten to punish) Hungary if Viktor Orbán continued to block the EU’s €50 billion aid package (which runs through 2027) for Ukraine, when the EU leaders began their summit in Brussels on Thursday it appears that Orbán simply folded and the aid packages was anticlimactically approved. Orbán reportedly settled for, as Reuters put it, “assurances the aid would be used sensibly and would not come from EU funds that had been earmarked for Budapest from the bloc's joint coffers.” The EU has suspended some €20 billion in funds over accusations that Orbán is undermining Hungarian democracy, and apparently he was keen to make sure that money wouldn’t be repurposed for Kyiv. At any rate, for a guy who was a firm “no” on this aid a month ago it seems like Orbán gave in pretty easily this time around. Maybe the threats were enough to cause him to drop his previous opposition.
The Kosovan government is attempting to enforce the euro as official currency even in predominantly Serb regions in the northern part of the country, where banks and other institutions have continued to use the Serbian dinar. At least one Serbian bank has already apparently shut down its Kosovan operations over this issue. On Thursday, the EU issued a statement calling on Kosovan authorities to slow down that effort, which risks once again exacerbating tensions in an already restive region. US ambassador Jeffrey Hovenier articulated similar concerns, suggesting that the issue should be brought up in EU-mediated talks between the Kosovan and Serbian governments.
According to the UN Haitian gang violence spiked in the last quarter of 2023, with more than 1600 people killed between October and December and more than 700 kidnapped—an increase of 20 percent over the previous quarter. Kenya’s High Court ruled last week that President William Ruto’s plan to deploy some 1000 police officers to Haiti at the head of an international intervention was unconstitutional, throwing the whole intervention into question, though Ruto still seems to think he’ll be able to move forward with the plan in the near future.
Finally, at FOREVER WARS Spencer Ackerman puts the drone strike in Jordan, and the Biden administration’s forthcoming retaliation, in their proper War on Terror context:
The only certainty is that whatever that response is, it won't end the war, because it can't, because it won’t address the roots of the crisis: Israel's collective punishment of Gaza; and beyond it, Israel's occupation and apartheid. As we learned at enormous cost throughout the War on Terror, political problems do not have military solutions. The White House is moving in this direction anyway.
If you thought the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were agonizing catastrophes, they will be nothing compared to war with Iran. Iran's Axis of Resistance might not possess the combined-arms expertise of the U.S. military. Yet it is a far more potent network than the U.S. gives it credit for, as proven by its abilities to capitalize on most of the mistakes the U.S. has made in the Middle East since 9/11.
Nothing could be more familiar from the past 20 years than the U.S. underestimating a Mideast enemy to its detriment. Yet here we are, having declined to reckon with the wreckage of the post-9/11 era and instead pretended it all just went away, once again leaving the Fuck Around Phase and about to return to the Find Out Era. Since I'm out of eloquence, I'm going to borrow Karl Marx's phrase. Welcome to the Eighteenth Brumaire of the War on Terror: a farcical, rote recapitulation of the historical disasters that led to this point, its ultimate failure as preordained as the horrors it will generate. Biden still has time to restrain Israel—and find a way to negotiate with Iran before we cross the threshold. But not much.
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